So I picked this up because I liked the cover.
And guys, it is sooooo good!
Okay, so this is Ozeki’s third book, and it was Booker shortlisted this year, and it totally deserves all the nice things people have been saying about it.
The story follows a dual narrative that is told in chapters that alternate between the two main characters. First there is Naoko, usually called Nao. She is writing a diary about her life in Japan, detailing her not so fabulous existence. She used to live in Sunnyvale, California in the late 1990’s with her family, but her dad lost his job when his internet startup burst in the tech bubble, so they had to come back to Japan pretty much broke. And then her dad had tons of mental problems and tried to kill himself multiple times. Her mom kinda took over and got a job, but that left Nao on her own.
And school for her is no fucking fun. Her classmates basically torture her. I mean, spoiler alert, but they hold a fake funeral for her in front of her face and steal her period-stained panties to sell on a fetish website. What the fuck is going on in this school, you know?
And on top of that, a whore cum pimp takes her under her wing and makes Nao into a call-girl at a French maid cafe. You know, just for a little bit.
But not everything sucks for her! She turns it around. She takes a lot of solace from spending a summer with her great-grandmother Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun in this rundown monastery. Jiko is awesome and super committed to bettering the world, and she really gives Nao tons of perspective. And since the whole story is told retrospectively, it has all of these references to Jiko and all the empowering Buddhist things she has to say. And I don’t want to spoil those sections because they’re really the best part, so read them.
That’s just half the story! I know, right! The other half is about Ruth, a writer on one of Aleutian Islands, who finds Nao’s lunchbox washed up on the beach. The lunchbox contains the journal, a group of letters, and a kamikaze pilot’s watch. And Ruth becomes obsessed with figuring out the story, but she also wants to pace herself to make it last. She’s enjoying it, and it helps put her own problems with writing her memoir in perspective. And then there’s her odd but perceptive husband and the weird island neighbors and storms and trash gyres and all sorts of goodness. But Ozeki doesn’t let the story go down this empowering route of finding meaning in a lunch box. I mean, the Ruth section is sort of empowering, but the ending isn’t that simple.
And are you ready for my favorite bit? The title is a pun! It’s a pun! It sounds like it’s a story that’s in progress, and it ends. Which is in part true. It tells the story of Nao’s life up until a certain point in her life, and there’s going to be more of her life after the book ends. But it also refers to the Buddhist concept of being a “time being,” or being super aware of the moments of your life and how they are spent because, according to Dogen, being is time and time is being (I’m sure I mangled the subtlety of that all to hell, being terrible with subtlety and Buddhism). And time and history and age and experience play such a huge role in this story and when I realized that pronunciation of the title really altered the meaning, I was like woah.
In case it’s not obvious, I loved this with both arms. It took me a while to get in the right head space, but once I was there, it was on like Donkey Kong.
JMF Rating: 9/10
‘Til next time,