When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.
Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now.
Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary. Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.
Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?
In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job:
"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.
Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.