Book Nook: A Tale for the Time Being

Editor’s Note: This article mentions suicide.

“Hi! My name is Nao and I am a time being.”

After spending my third summer in a row severely depressed, I found myself at the local library, browsing the shelves in a way I hadn’t since I was kid. In fact, this was probably my first time in the adult fiction section of that library. I used to go to the library all the time, but my indecisive nature meant that picking out a book could sometimes take me hours and would occasionally send me into a fit of panic over the overwhelming number of choices. So I developed a method: picking a random row of shelves and taking out the first book that caught my eye. Then, I’d read the synopsis on the back of the book; if it seemed interesting, I’d take it home, and if not, I’d try again. It’s through this method that I found myself on my knees, picking through the bottom of the R–S shelf that I discovered A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

A Tale for the Time Being is a sincere love letter to young women of color who struggle with mental health issues and suicidal tendencies.

The book focuses on the perspective of a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao who details her day-to-day life in her diary while simultaneously trying to narrate the life story of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. The novel switches between Nao’s diary and the perspective of 40-year-old Japanese-American novelist Ruth, who emigrated to Canada and happened upon Nao’s diary washed up on shore while strolling along the beach. Through the diary, we get a firsthand glimpse into Nao’s life as she seems to almost break the fourth wall and talk directly to us as the readers, which, among other things, appears to be one of her abilities as a self-proclaimed “time being.” The character of Ruth seems to serve as a stand-in for readers as she becomes engrossed in Nao’s diary and gets a glimpse of the highs and lows of the young girl’s life, eventually feeling an intense sense of urgency to figure out who Nao is as the young girl’s life begins to spiral out of control.

A Tale for the Time Being is an earnest depiction of the realities of being a young person struggling with mental illness. Ozeki depicts Nao’s life without condescension or patronization. She has no falsely optimistic moral to force on her readers, nor does she simply depict a grim existence without nuance or emotion. Ozeki is witty, impactful, and most importantly, honest. Using the format of a diary, she is able to give us a unique perspective of Nao’s life and make it seem as if Nao is reaching through the page.

Nao is not like the typical white, middle-class protagonists overrepresented in narratives that deal with mental health and suicide. A Tale for the Time Being is a great novel for young people of color who feel alone and feel as if no one understands what they’re going through. The novel deals with topics of identity, immigration, bullying, sexual assault, and family dynamics in a way that is tender and sincere. Reading about Nao’s quirky charm and unbridled honesty is what made A Tale for the Time Being a bright point in an otherwise dim summer.