“You should start where you are,” Jiko texts her grand-daughter, Nao. On the table is a new diary with the cover of Marcel Praust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). The meaning carries through out the rest of novel. Nao finds herself in Fifi’s, a café where she’s surrounded by fake French maids and perverted hentai. She begins writing about her transition from a popular girl in Sunnyvale, California to an ostracized Japanese girl.
Nao describes her insecurities growing up in Japan where she feels alienated as someone arriving from America. Her father was fired from a company in Silicon Valley; the family lost all economic standing and had to return to Japan where only the mom worked. They transition from living in the suburbs to a tiny apartment in a crowded Tokyo neighborhood. Nao has lost contact with her old friends, and her new classmates don’t provide the emotional support a 16-year-old needs, instead they bully her. She writes about depression and the frustrations of growing up alone without much supervision from her parents. Nao’s mom works all day and her father is mentally unstable, going so far as to attempt to kill himself several times. After losing his job, Nao’s dad becomes reclusive and hopeless.
Sometime in the future Ruth discovers Nao’s diary while walking by a nearby beach. She sees a plastic hello kitty box floating and inside is Nao’s diary, a couple of letters and an old watch belonging to a Kamikaze pilot from WWII (Nao’s uncle). Ruth wonders if the recent tsunami in Japan has something to do with this rare find. We are asked to pose our own preliminary enquiry. Is Nao still alive? Ruth fills us in as she reads the diary, then every other chapter it switches back to Nao’s first person narrative.
Ruth is a well-known writer possibly in her forties living with her husband, Oliver and a cat named Pesto in Whaletown, off the coast of British Columbia, an almost desolate Island, with constant storms, strong winds, and lack of electricity. The couple has a few friends, but they mostly live out their days walking around a creaky old house, and doing work in separate rooms. Ruth has writer’s block and a case of grumpiness. We also come to find out that she may suffer from memory loss. It’s no surprise the whole island is under the spell of forgetfulness.
Ruth isn’t completely content with her life in Whaletown. She wonders how her life would have turned out had she stayed in New York City. She is removed from the world, and Oliver though smart and ingenious about the environment, doesn’t seem to excite her. Some might find Ruth unlikable since she’s gets irritated easily, especially at her husbands comments. She often postpones reading the diary, when all the reader wants to know is, what happens to Nao? I see this as a realistic portrayal of someone living in a desolate place after being use to urban life, and having to cope with isolation and loneliness. It’s possible she envisioned herself somewhere else or with someone else when she was younger. She also doesn’t seem in a hurry to translate the letters that were left with the diary. Ruth paces the reading and investigates online, creating suspense as she talk over the details with her husband. There is something Ruth can learn from Nao who symbolizes the present, and the struggled to discover the self. Ruth appears to be floating on a lifeless island in some distant future, unsure how she got there. It’s possibly that Ruth needed to find this diary to analyze her own life, and be grateful for where she stands.
At first the switching of the narrators is distracting, and you can’t help choosing one style over the other one. Ruth is an older women who is not sure if she’s happy. She’s a well-known writer struggling with her upcoming memoir. Nao is speaking to us in her own voice, often with agitation, anxiety, sadness but also hope. The omnipresent tone of Ruth is filled with mystery, magic realism, soft eloquent words, nature and wildlife, and on Nao’s side, we get urban Tokyo, bullying, raw words, death, sex, suicide, the Buddhism and the vulnerability of a young girl. Ruth’s is about forgetting, and trying to find the reality within fiction. Ruth is not living in an awaken state; she’s merely passing along like the wind. Nao is discovering her strength, and what kind of women she wants to be. She is the eternal now.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the theme of Buddhism. It’s the guiding force especially in Nao’s case who is depressed about school, family life, her future, and a father who has also given up on life. Nao’s grandmother, Jiko, a nun, embodies the teachings of Buddhism, but never assumes she has all the answers. She’s wise, mindful, and loving to her family. Overall the characters in the book are not judgmental; they are compassionate or at least strive to be that way. The story tackles depression in less intrusive ways. We’re always hearing young people being medicated or visiting cold, manipulative physiatrists for a quick relief from what is usually just being human. Rather the novel shows a kinder, gentler approach to coping with depression. Instead of quickly, medicating we should understand that sometimes depression is part of the journey.
After going away to the monastery, Nao comes back a little more resilient; she’s able to face her bullies and also remain calm when her dad tries to commit suicide yet again. She doesn’t give herself pity nor does she reserve hate for her place or the people angering her, instead she chooses to be a wave, a grandmother told her. She shaves her head possibly to relive herself of the guilt she’s been carrying for not being who she’s expected to be.
The end may come off as a nice package wrapped up in the form of an email from a professor who knows Nao’s father, and informs Ruth that they all are safe. There’s also a dream in which Ruth intervenes by showing the French letter to Nao’s father, deterring him from committing the final attempt at suicide. It’s revealed in the diary that the father travels to the monastery to see Jiko’s final hour. There’s a bit of superstition and magic realism, but it’s not manipulative. While the novel may be interpreted as a cultural study of Japan and it’s people, it’s one story of many, and we should not be fast to dismiss it because it includes familiar themes like suicide and anime. We are given characters that are fully developed, and like us, are discovering new things about Japan.
Dōgen Zenji, a Zen Buddhist master wrote that a single day is made up of 6,400,099,980 moments. By snapping your finger once, 60 moments pass by. It makes you wonder how miniscule our moments are compared to the vast expanse of a life. Dōgen’s concept of time pervades the whole novel as something fluid and ethereal like waves. Each of us are time beings. It’s amazes me to think out of a universe so fast and complicated, we exist. What is a tale for the time being? It is a person who lives.
Do not think that time simply flies away. All moments are the time being, they are your time being. Interconnected. The entire world is linked together in time…