British Columbia

Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I attended the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference this week. Just before an afternoon workshop on Wednesday, I chatted with a woman who is writing her memoir.

“I don’t read fiction,” she told me. “Are there any good female writers?”

Not “Are there any female writers you’d recommend?” Just, “Are there any good ones?”

Never mind the 813 ways I wanted to respond to the question. I thought of the last great book I’d read, which happened to be written by a woman. I began to tell her of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

I said something about a teenage girl’s diary washing up on the shore of a remote island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia. About a writer in the doldrums, plodding through her memoir. About a mystery and Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics.

I did a terrible job of describing this beautiful book, for the woman sitting next to me said, “Oh, mysteries. I would never read a mystery. My husband likes P.D. James, though.”

No, wait, I wanted to say. You don’t understand. It’s not a mystery mystery. There’s just this diary of a young girl being bullied and the tsunami and flotsam and Schrödinger’s cat, and …. But it was too late. Class began and we delved into the mysteries of character development.

Her question made me consider the relevance of author gender. A part of the me thinks Who cares if the writer is male or female? Why can’t we categorize a piece as a fine work of prose without the condescending sub-category of “woman/female” writer? We don’t say male writer, now do we? Yet, when it comes to a work as self-referential as A Tale for the Time Being, it is hard to separate the writer from her thematic approach. Men and women do regard time, space, the natural world, memory and mortality differently, don’t we? Or perhaps we articulate the same beliefs and emotions in a different way. I’m getting all tangled up here. Much like Ruth does as she attempts to sort out the mystery of the diary she finds on the beach.

Ozeki uses the avatar of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu as a literal and figurative bookend. A copy of this 19th century classic is repurposed as a blank journal and written in by Naoko, or Nao, as she prefers to be called. Nao is a young woman, ethnically Japanese but raised in the United States. The late 90’s tech bubble bursts and the economic collapse sends her family back to Japan. There she buys the journal and uses it to escape from the horror of the physical abuse and psychological torture she experiences at her new high school and the tragedy of her father’s depression. Nao is our guide through much of this story and like her name, Nao is a time being. Her now is in the past, but Nao becomes Ruth’s present.

Many years after Nao’s abominable teenage years, Ruth, the story’s main character – a writer and student of Zen Buddhism, much like Ruth, the book’s author – finds the journal. Enclosed in the diary are several letters written in Japanese, which appear to be from a much earlier time than Nao’s diary entries in English. These letters become a mystery within a mystery. Ruth wonders if the carefully packaged journal is flotsam from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami or jetsam from a young woman crying for help.

It is significant that the title of Proust’s epic novel cum memoir is translated either as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, for both titles fit Proust’s and Ozeki’s themes (although the first translation is literal). This is a story of time. How truth and memory shift and are reconstructed with time; how impatient we are for troubled times to pass, yet we are breathless with regret when we realize the time we have wasted on the way. It is an ode to the bliss of the present; an elegy to the lost past.

This is also a story that takes time. It asks that you slow down and turn its pages as carefully as Ruth does Nao’s diary. It is a story of images, of settings, nuances and breath which, like Nao’s diary and the old letters Ruth has translated, “reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.”

Ozeki juxtaposes the peace of Ruth’s isolation and simple life on the island with the chaos of Nao’s Tokyo. Yet even the island is subject to the chaos of the natural world. Ruth must dash off e-mails before the latest winter storm knocks out power to their home. She and her husband search their property and beyond for the corpse of the family cat, certain wolves have made quick hors d’oeuvres of kitty. This is in contrast to Nao’s beloved great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun living a life of elective poverty and self-reliance at a peaceful mountain temple site.

We are reminded that the past never forgets, whether it is found letters or diaries, or a moment captured on the internet that can never truly be erased. We are reminded that it is the present which demands our greatest attention, for the present becomes the past with the beat of a heart, the screech of train, the crash of an airliner into a skyscraper or the crash of a wave on an island.

This is a novel of grand themes, complex themes, themes that require appendices. It is a work of fiction with an extensive bibliography. I tend to steer clear of complicated works of fiction that endeavor to instruct. I simply want a good story. Which Ruth Ozeki offers. Oh boy, does she ever.

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Book Review: The O'Briens by Peter Behrens

The O'BriensThe O'Briens by Peter Behrens My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.

It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O'Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.

The O'Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O'Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada's back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O'Brien determination from the author's previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe's grandfather, Fergus O'Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.

Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.

Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.

Other characters, such as Joe's brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.

Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover - one with many world-changing events - but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters' development by how they respond to their circumstances.

It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens's story. This is a luminous read.

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