Review: A Tale for the Time Being, By Ruth Ozeki

Opening Schrödinger's lunchbox

The interconnectedness of all things is a familiar cornerstone of the Buddhist religion, as well as one of the fascinating upshots of modern quantum physics. Links have been made between these two disparate fields before, but seldom can they have been intertwined with such emotive power and linguistic grace as Ruth Ozeki manages in this funny, heartbreaking, moving and profound novel.

The central premise of A Tale for the Time Being is a fantastic narrative hook: while out walking on the beach one day in remote Northwestern Canada, a struggling writer called Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in an airtight freezer bag. Inside are a diary, a collection of Japanese letters and an old watch. On reading the diary, Ruth discovers that it belongs to a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl called Nao, writing a decade previously in Tokyo. How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world?

Ruth's first presumption is that the package washed up after the Japanese tsunami of a few months previously, thanks to the colossal oceanic gyres, or currents, at work in the Pacific. As she reads on, Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of Nao, emotionally engaging with this stranger's story in the way that readers do with a good yarn – a feeling of engagement that Ruth is singularly lacking in her own work, as she struggles to write her memoirs.

Half of A Tale for the Time Being is made up of Nao's diary entries, in which we discover that she has been having an extremely tough time at school, where she is bullied, beaten and ritualistically humiliated. Her father has already attempted suicide, and makes further attempts, while her mother becomes more distant as the family disintegrates.

At the same time, Nao is attempting to write the life story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a fantastic 104-year-old feminist and radical Buddhist monk living in a remote temple in the north-east of Japan. Nao's life is transformed through her engagement with Jiko's life, and during Jiko's story we also learn the fate of her son, Haruki, a promising student conscripted into becoming a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War.

So, there are stories within stories here, and we haven't even got to the physics stuff yet. In Japan, Nao's father is a programmer with ideas about quantum computing, while back in Canada, Ruth's partner Oliver is an autodidact scientist and artist, on hand to explain about Schröding-er's cat and the fact that observing a quantum event affects the outcome of that event. And just as the gyres have connected the diary with Ruth, so reading the diary links Ruth to Nao in a deep way; the act of reading having influence over the act of story-telling and vice versa.

The warmth, compassion, wisdom and insight with which Ozeki pieces all these stories together will have the reader linked in a similarly profound way to this fantastic novel.