Ozeki’s magnificent third novel (All Over Creation, 2003, etc.) brings together a Japanese girl’s diary and a transplanted American novelist to meditate on everything from bullying to the nature of conscience and the meaning of life.
On the beach of an island off British Columbia’s coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a stack of letters and a red book. The book contains 16-year-old Nao’s diary, bound within the covers of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—and that’s no accident, since both funny, grieving Nao and blocked, homesick Ruth are obsessed with time: how it passes, how we live in it. Nao wants to “drop out of time”; so does her father, a computer programmer who spent 10 years in California’s Silicon Valley before the dot-com bust apparently sent the family back to Tokyo and subjected Nao to vicious bullying at school. Ruth moved from New York City to Canada since it was an easier place to care for her sick husband and dying mother but now feels the move was “a withdrawal” and is finding it hard to write. She plunges into Nao’s diary, which also includes the stories of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, an anarchist and feminist turned Buddhist nun, and Jiko’s son Haruki, a philosophy student forced to become a kamikaze pilot during World War II. The letters in the lunchbox are Haruki’s, and his secret army diary begins the book’s extended climax, which transcends bitter anguish to achieve heartbreaking poignancy as both Nao and Ruth discover what it truly means to be “a time being.” Ozeki faultlessly captures the slangy cadences of a contemporary teen’s voice even as she uses it to convey Nao’s pain and to unobtrusively offer a quiet introduction to the practice and wisdom of Zen through Jiko’s talks with her great-granddaughter. The novel’s seamless web of language, metaphor and meaning can’t be disentangled from its powerful emotional impact: These are characters we care for deeply, imparting vital life lessons through the magic of storytelling.
A masterpiece, pure and simple.