A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki

The multi-voiced narrative is clearly IN this year. Donal Ryan, Colum McCann and now Ruth Ozeki. I’m not reading the longlist in any particular order – maybe the books in the pile shuffle themselves round at night, like toys after the children have gone to bed, choosing their neighbours on the basis of narrative approach.

A barnacle encrusted parcel washes up on a small island hundreds of miles away; upon investigation, it proves to contain the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl, a parcel of letters and an antique watch. One strand of the novel follows the parcel’s finders, Ruth and Oliver, as they work out where the parcel has come from and who the Japanese schoolgirl was. The second is the diary itself, written in a notebook made from a copy of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The letters themselves make up a third.

So far, so intriguing. Ozeki had me at ‘mysterious parcel washes up on beach,’ and I stood on the rim of the magic storytelling cauldron and watched her mix her ingredients with awe. The watch turns out to belong to a kamikaze pilot from World War Two; Naoko’s diary tells of alienation, persecution and suicide attempts; a generous helping of Buddhist philosophy in the shape of Naoko’s great-grandmother, who is 104 and a Buddhist nun, helps bind the disparate strands. But try as I might, I couldn’t jump in.

At first, I was kept out by the footnotes. Naoko’s diary sections are full of them. It’s as though Ozeki didn’t quite trust herself to bring Nao’s world to life through voice alone. In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the footnotes were part of the game Susanna Clarke was playing with the reader, creating an alternative English history. Ozeki, however, steps out of the game to give word meanings and historical facts that both the ostensible writer (Nao) and the ostensible reader (Ruth) know perfectly well. It’s fine, but it’s distancing, and I wish Ozeki had left the bottles labelled ‘Verisimilitude’ and ‘Reader Orientation’ corked.

I got over it. I sat on the edge of the cauldron and prepared to dive. I even bought – or went along with – the fact that the major plot reveal turns on a dream in which the events actually happen in the physical world. But at the last moment, Ozeki threw a sheet of cling film over the cauldron again. If you stir up the foul depths of human experience – failure, suicide, persecution, teenage prostitution, attempted rape and the online auction of bloody knickers – you can’t just hold up a glass of crystal clear water in the final pages and expect the reader to drink. You have to filter the muddy water, as Barbara Kingsolver does in The Poisonwood Bible. Or show the mud settling, as Donna Tartt does in The Secret History, or give the dreadful experiences some point, as John Irving does in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Or do as Michael Cunningham does in The Hours and show that the mud isn’t poisonous, or deadly, so something to be feared – it’s simply what we are.

Ozeki can write. And I can read. I hope she writes more, and that next time, she’ll trust me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s