We are first introduced to the sixteen year-old Japanese schoolgirl Nao and her diary about contemporary social life in Japan. At first amusing for its almost-breathless narration of various school personality types, Nao's diary quickly turns toward more morbid topics, such as the suicide of her father after his failure to provide for his family in the wake of the 2000 dot com bubble burst and her own reflections (including citations from Proust) on time and in particular on "time beings," which Nao defines as "someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be" on the opening page of her diary. Her musings on time and the Zen master Dogen's commentary that time is itself a being as everything in the entire universe is intimately linked, continuous and yet separate, as moments of time form the novel's core. Nao's personal life is seemingly tragic (there are accounts of attempted violence toward her, among other events) and the mysteries of what happens next adds a thriller-like quality to her narrative.
Balancing out Nao's diary is the reflection of Ruth, herself an amalgamation of the author herself and a fictional character. Ruth, living on an island just off the coast of British Columbia, discovers Nao's diary (along with the diary of a relative who fought in World War II) in the debris that washed ashore sometime after the devastating 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao's diary, she reflects on her own experiences and the questions that arise after she fails to track down whether or not Nao is still alive, if she committed suicide, or if she were caught up in the devastation of the tsunami. Ruth reflects on time's uncertainties, how Nao, like Schrodinger's cat, exists in a state of quantum uncertainty, as any number of events in 2011 could have left her alive or dead. Too easily, this could have been a trite exercise, but Ozeki delves deeper into the lives of the two women and those connected with them. Ruth is far more than a middle-aged woman baffled by a schoolgirl's diary, just as Nao is beyond just a (potentially) tragic character.
Ozeki's intermingling of their narratives in alternating chapters (along with citations of the second included journal) creates a fascinating interplay of lives and moments. By novel's end, Ozeki arrives at a further understanding of Dogen's view of time as being something that pervades us and yet exists outside of us. This acceptance of time (and by extension, lives) as something that fascinates and yet eludes us makes A Tale for the Time Being a powerful novel, not because we arrive at a greater understanding of events, but because it reminds us through its well-drawn characters and excellent prose that some things will forever be beyond our ken and that itself provides opportunities for personal growth and development. Time is a being, just like we are, and it never remains static, as Ozeki reminds us eloquently in her understated yet moving novel.