Ozeki writes through the lens of her 16-year-old protagonist and her family’s recent relocation back to Japan. Nao is a very straightforward but comical narrator; somehow Ozeki pulls off writing about very triggering topics such as suicide in a serious but “lighthearted” manner. The first half of the book is very easy to read; it’s very fast paced and keeps you alert. The second half is just as good but the writing style turns much darker very fast. I even had to put the book down a couple of times just to refocus myself.
This story is about cruelty. Cruelty of a world pushing you to the brink of you wanting to exist; cruelty of people who refuse to accept you; cruelty of corporations and their greed by refusing to respect your hesitancy in gaining profits through war. It’s about people pushing back from the status quo that is accepting war, accepting torture, accepting executions, etc. And in a way, this story is very much about life. There are several characters that interweave through time and they all respect life so much but yet nearly all face the choice of having to or wanting to kill themselves.
It is very easy to connect with Nao; her narration style is very informal and engaging. Anyone who’s gone through high school knows how cruel other students can be to one another and how important it is to reject bullying. It’s very heartbreaking to see how much her life is ruined because of her classmates and her continual struggle to pull herself back to the surface. Nao isn’t a perfect character and I really appreciate how Ozeki characterizes her callousness toward her father’s troubles. Bullying is a circle and the bullied can also create cruelty unto others.
Ozeki submerges the reader in Japanese culture. If you have the Kindle version as I do, the links to the notes come in very handy and I suggest that you read this book in its entirety which includes the appendix. The novel also submerges the reader in Zen Buddhism which I believe helps keep the novel’s peace. There are very dark times but I began to rely on some breathing techniques mentioned in the book and found it easier to read during the second half.
This book will probably be triggering; Ozeki does not shy away from the harsh reality of the world which entails: sexual assault, rape, suicide, war, and genocide. At the end of the day you realize how cruel the world actually is, how cruel people can be (which is an astonishing amount). And then you must make a decision on how you respond to the cruelty around you.
A Tale for the Time Being has some fantastic quotes. Some of my favorite are:
“What is the half-life of information?”
“During the physical examination in October, the recruiting officer ordered us to “switch off our hearts and minds completely.” He instructed us to cut off our love and sever our attachment with our family and blood relations because from now on we were soldiers and our loyalty must lie solely with our Emperor and our homeland of Japan. I remember listening to this and thinking that I could never comply, but I was wrong. In trying to stop your tears, I was already obeying the officer’s command to the letter, not out of patriotic allegiance, but out of cowardice, in order not to feel the pain of my own heart, breaking.”
“Think about it. Where do words come from? They come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead to life.”
“Killing people should not be so much fun.”
“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.”
A wonderful book and a must-read. 5/5