A Tale for The Time Being (Canongate, 2013) is a book about connections – between and in spite of people, time, and place. The story is set in motion when Ruth, who lives on Cortes, one of the Discovery Islands at the northern end of Georgia Strait, finds a mysterious piece of flotsam: The diary of Nao, a teenager in Japan. The two narrators resemble each other in obvious ways, such as their hybrid Japanese-American identities, and more unexpected ones that emerge over the course of the story. But the novel also works with contrasts, skipping from the struggles of living on a small island to peaceful monastery life to unsparing descriptions of suicide attempts, psychological and physical abuse.
Hippies and mass murderers
Cortes is described as “named for a famous Spanish conquistador, who overthrew the Aztec empire. Although he never made it up as far north as his eponymous isle, his men did, which is why the inlets and sounds of coastal British Columbia are scattered with the names of famous Spanish mass murderers. But in spite of its sanguinary name, theirs was a relatively benign and happy little isle […] For two months out of the year, the sun shone. But when the tourists and the summer people left, the blue skies clouded over and the island bared its teeth, revealing its churlish side. The days grew short and the nights grew long, and for the next ten months, it rained. The locals who lived there year-round liked it this way.”
During my visit to Cortes in mid-May the island is slowly but surely turning into the “gemlike paradise” of the summer months. The brightly colored health food shop and the free store beside the recycling station emanate the hippie vibe portrayed in the novel. The island’s bookstore features all of the author’s works. When I pick up her latest book The Face: A Time Code (Restless Books, 2016), the owner asks if I’m aware that the author is a Cortes resident. I am: The fact that Ruth Ozeki is both the author and one of the main characters in A Tale for The Time Being intrigued me to visit the island. How honest can the rendering of a place be if you know all of the locals will read it?
Realism and its counterparts
I already learned that Ozeki’s portrayal is close to real life while I stayed on Quadra, the neighboring island. After I mentioned the purpose of my visit, I was immediately told where exactly the author’s house was located and that it certainly wouldn’t be a problem to just “drop in”. This attitude is something Ozeki describes in the novel as hard to get used to even after years of living on Cortes. When I ask for the official name of a place the novel calls “Jap Farm” at the Cortes Museum, it is clear I am not the first person to approach them with this question. Looking over the local authors that are also on display here, I wonder how many visits like mine A Tale for The Time Being and other works have inspired.
With its various settings, however, the novel might as well inspire someone to visit Japan. Yet, Ozeki’s specific, realistic renderings of places are only the background for the unfolding story. In it, she skillfully interweaves two seemingly incompatible worldviews: Buddhist philosophy and Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” interpretation. By pointing out their similarities, she turns the leitmotif of connection into the basis for the novel’s most important plot twist. For a book dealing with many serious and sad topics, A Tale for The Time Being has a surprisingly happy ending. But it could have easily been otherwise.