The promise of a new world can be intoxicating, causing a person’s life to come into a completely different focus. Books can offer passage to these places. Some have the ability to eclipse reality and become almost as promising and intricate as getting to know someone new, ornamenting the imagination with found objects and the pleasure that comes from being illuminated by the unknown. Some stories can even cause sea changes, rousing a mind from its waking sleep, changing a person entirely.
Ruth Ozeki offers perspective into such a world in A Tale For the Time Being. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013, it was a friend’s recent pick for our book group. I don’t think anyone actually read it or finished it. I’m not sure why, because it was one of the most striking books I’ve read in the last ten years.
Ozeki, in addition to being a novelist, is also a filmmaker and a Buddhist priest. Her writing style is refreshingly candid, which ends up nicely balancing out what can be, at times, a confusing plot. It’s kind of a puzzle, layered with several stories and time periods. It doesn’t go easy on the reader, but offers a great deal in return.
The story mostly centers around Nao, a teenager living in Japan, who has chronicled her life in a journal before she vows to take it. The journal mysteriously washes ashore near British Columbia, and is found by a woman who must decipher whether Nao has indeed taken her life, is the victim of the 2011 Tsunami, or is possibly still living.
While Nao is the heart of the book, the soul of the story belongs to her grandmother, Jiko. She is a 104 year old Buddhist nun who could level even the hardest heart with stories of her patience and wisdom. Honestly, Jiko was the reason I kept reading the book with such drive. Ozeki offers something sacred in the retelling of Jiko’s story by telling it from a bullied, forsaken teenager’s perspective.
Occasionally the small characters in literature can become the center of a story, changing everything; in this one, a tiny, ancient, bald woman does just this. She has lingered in my thoughts with her infinite patience and worn prayer beads—has, in a way, changed me as much as actually meeting someone new.
I had truly entered into another world through this experience, and I came back out the other side feeling somehow transformed. I feel different, and yet I feel the same, and I can’t stop thinking about why that is. I am compelled to read all of her books—explore all of these stories—and I wonder just what it is I am looking for. I guess I just want to know the human heart, to understand it better. Sometimes entrance into other worlds allows me to see things in this one differently.
To keep one foot in Ozeki’s world, I actually ordered some Buddhist prayer beads from Ebay. I plan on wearing them down as Jiko did whenever I encounter life’s less than pleasant elements, and hope to have even a small fraction of her serenity and gratitude.