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Written by Jan Kline on October 29, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Having never read Ruth Ozeki, I approached this novel with some trepidation. It sounded like a real yard sale of elements: a teenage girl’s diary (possibly authored by a victim of the Fukushima disaster), Zen monks, time travel, schoolgirl fetishists, kamikaze pilots, quantum physics,… and (always a red flag for me) a “fictional” character with the same name, age, description, spouse, and living situation as the author. But the book came highly recommended by a friend, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was the next read for my book club, so I dove in.

Let’s just say I’m going to have to work on my knee-jerk reactions to magpie-worthy collections of shiny, seemingly unrelated plot elements. And if an author is nervy enough to insert her undisguised self into a piece of fiction, I need to get over it.

9780143124870_p0_v1_s260x420Because Ozeki pulls off this juggling act, big time. For a book that circles around multiple deaths (of old age, as a teenager via nuclear disaster, from Alzheimer’s, by suicide — both elective and militarily mandated), it manages to have a generous dose of light and humor to balance out the darkness and depth. What begins as a distraction for Ruth, allowing her to avoid editing her memoir about caring for her mother, dying of Alzheimer’s, turns into a full blown obsession, a story that winds its way in and out of her life.

Here, Ruth finds the diary on the beach:

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the san d at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

But something made her stop. She leaned over and nudged the heap of kelp with the toe of her sneaker then poked it with a stick. Untangling the whiplike fronds, she dislodged enough to see that what glistened underneath was not a dying sea jelly, but something plastic, a bag. Not surprising. The ocean was full of plastic. She dug a bit more, until she could lift the bag up by its corner. It was heavier than she expected, a scarred plastic freezer bag, encrusted with barnacles that spread across its surface like a rash. It must have been in the ocean for a long time, she thought. Inside the bag, she could see a hint of something red, someone’s garbage, no doubt, tossed overboard or left behind after a picnic or a rave. The sea was always heaving things up and hurling them back: fishing lines, fl oats, beer cans, plastic toys, tampons, Nike sneakers. A few years earlier it was severed feet. People were finding them up and down Vancouver Island, washed up on the sand. One had been found on this very beach. No one could explain what had happened to the rest of the bodies. Ruth didn’t want to think about what might be rotting inside the bag. She flung it farther up the beach. She would finish her walk and then pick it up on the way back, take it home, and throw it out.

author photo: Krist Krug/Viking

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