Book Club Guide—A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
The list of book club questions for this novel could go on and on (and it sort of does, below), because Ruth Ozeki’s novel is rich with ideas, information, history, physics, literary allusions, spirituality, and more. Amid all the colossal ideas, it weaves an utterly compelling story—not of just one main character, but two. In A Tale of Time Being, the narrator, Ruth, also becomes a reader when she finds the remains of a Japanese girl’s journal that has traveled both space and time after the 2011 tsunami and washed up on the island where Ruth lives in the Pacific Northwest. With each chapter, Ruth pieces together the facts of Nao’s life in order to try to figure out the girl’s fate. It’s not just the tsunami that could have destroyed Nao, but a host of other problems she has to deal with, from intense bullying to her father’s suicidal state. For your book club meeting, serve sushi, oysters, and smoked salmon, and settle in for a long discussion in which you’re likely to lose all track of time.
Time and Time Being:
What is the significance of Nao choosing to write her diary inside the cover of the classic novel À la recherché du temps perdu by Marcel Proust? Proust’s title can be translated as “In search of lost time.” How is that title fitting for Nao’s journal?
Is it necessary to understand quantum mechanics to grasp the way that time functions in Ozeki’s novel? How does time shift?
Nao describes her 104-year-old grandmother as “the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun.” How would you describe Jiko? What is her influence on Nao?
What “supapawa” does Jiko give to Nao?
Do you find Nao’s father to be a sympathetic character? What is he struggling with? Should he or could he have done more as a father for Nao?
Death and Suicide:
What did you learn from A Tale for the Time Being about the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in 2011? What are the aftereffects of this disaster, as told by the novel?
Nao’s father, Harry (or Haruki #2), wrote to psychology professor Dr. Leistiko that “We Japanese have always appreciated suicide. For us it is a beautiful thing that gives meaning and shape and honor to our lives forever. It is a method to make our feeling of alive most real.” Does this description of suicide help explain Harry’s actions in the novel? How does it help explain Haruki #1’s actions as a kamikaze pilot? How does it explain Nao’s life as a “living ghost” after her “funeral” at school? How does suicide tie together Nao, her father, and her great-uncle?
Japanese History and Culture:
Ruth Ozeki incorporates a myriad of Japanese stereotypes and cultural artifacts into the novel, often explaining them in footnotes. For Western readers, do these Japanese influences serve to draw us into the novel, or do they make us feel farther removed from the story?
What did you learn from A Tale for the Time Being about Japan’s involvement in World War II? Is Haruki’s experience meant to be representative of other Japanese soldiers?
Why does Nao have such a difficult time adjusting to Japan when her family moves back there from California? Why do her Japanese schoolmates target her so intensely, and what effect does their bullying have on her? Is there any other way she could have dealt with it?
Writers and Readers:
Nao says that “secret French diaries seem to run in the family,” since Nao hides her writing inside Proust, and Haruki hides his journal by writing in French. For whom or to whom is each one writing? Are their journals read by their intended audiences?
Do you think Nao and Ruth ever get to meet?
Ancient Ways and Modern Developments:
What does Nao learn in her time at the temple?
In the novel, how do ancient ways of living (Zen, journaling, lack of electricity) intersect with more modern developments (the Internet, social media, technology, and dot-coms)? Is one mode of living valued over another in the world of the novel?
Ruth spends most of the novel struggling to settle into life on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest and longing instead for the urban excitement of New York City. By the end, does she consider Whaletown home? How does she come to terms with the island where she lives? How does her research into Nao’s journal bring her closer to the island?