The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth. Nao is a teenage girl living in Japan. She grew up in America, so is struggling to fit into a culture that is both her own and completely alien. She’s bullied at school, her dad is depressed and suicidal, and her only ‘friend’ owns a rather dodgy café. There is her great-grandmother, though. A 104-year-old, Buddhist, feminist, author nun who doesn’t live near Nao but has learnt to text. Nao is writing the diary to reach forward in time, to leave something for someone to find.
Ruth finds the diary (and some other bits and pieces) in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on the beach in western Canada; probably, she thinks, debris from the 2011 tsunami. Her husband, Oliver, thrives in their rural setting, but Ruth, a writer, is struggling with a kind of open-space claustrophobia and a feeling of isolation. Like Nao, she is also American-Japanese and somewhat in between cultures.
It took me a couple of chapters to get into this. It starts fairly light, and at first Nao is a bit annoying in a squeaky teenage-girl way. But as she reveals a more honest portrait of herself and her life, it gets much darker, and much richer.
I was also quite apprehensive when the first of Ruth’s chapters appeared. I was worried Ozeki was writing herself into the book in the third person, along with her real-life partner Oliver, as usually this ‘technique’ just feels extremely awkward and clunky to me (hey, Paulo Coelho, yes, I’m talking about you). It actually didn’t feel awkward at all, and, in fact, it added something extra. Is it real? Is it based on something real? I hoped so. At the end of the book there is a passage about uncertainty:
“I’d much rather know, but then again, the not-knowing keeps all the possibilities open. It keeps all the worlds alive.”
By putting herself and Oliver in the book, it opens up a world where this isn’t fiction, it is fact, and I loved that. It’s a kind of Schrödinger’s novel – it exists as both fact and fiction as long as you don’t look in the box (or read the acknowledgements).
It’s about living and dying, searching and loss. It’s about Zen Buddhism and quantum physics, magic and the threads that extent between both family and strangers. Plus, all sorts of other things like the nature of time, the environment and the second world war. It’s incredibly rich and thought-provoking. But it’s not just these grand, unwieldy themes; it’s also the small moments and minor hurts and care between people – family and neighbours and friends.
It’s a book to savour, reading slowly on purpose. It’s beautiful and I can’t recommend it enough.