Wow! Whee! Whew! Finding the words to clearly express my feelings about this book are difficult: “Sometimes the mind arrives but the words don’t.” It is an enthralling, mesmerizing read which leaves the reader with much to ponder.
The plot seems simple. Nao Yasutani is a 16-year-old living in Tokyo in the early years of the twenty-first century. In a diary she is writing, she describes herself as a “time being” who has decided she is “going to drop out of time.” Before she commits suicide, however, she wants to write the life story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a Buddhist nun who was also a “novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era . . . an anarchist and a feminist.” Although we do meet Jiko and learn a bit about her, it is not her life story but Nao’s which fills the pages of the diary.
About a decade later, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, on a remote island on British Columbia’s coast, Ruth discovers Nao’s diary, along with some other artifacts, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth, the novelist, becomes Nao’s reader. Ruth also becomes a detective of sorts as she tries to find out how the lunchbox found its way to her and what happened to Nao and her family.
That the book is a meditation on time is obvious from the beginning. The book’s title and the opening definition of a “time being” as “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are the first clues. That Nao’s diary has the cover of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is no coincidence. Included are quotes from an ancient Buddhist master: “Time itself is being . . . and all being is time . . . In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.”
As suggested by the above quotation, the interconnectedness of life is another major theme. For example, the book explores the connections between writer and reader. Nao claims that she and her reader together will “make magic” and Ruth eventually wonders whether Nao conjured Ruth into being. The connections between past and present are also examined. Nao discusses the difficulties of writing about the past: “Maybe that Nao of the past never really existed, except in the imagination of this Nao of the present. . . . the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction.”
This is a complex metaphysical novel. Its references range from thirteenth-century Buddhist writings to quantum mechanics. The depth and breadth of the book should not, however, discourage potential readers. It is very readable. Anyone who watches The Big Bang Theory will be able to follow the discussions of quantum physics and the experiment involving Schrodinger’s cat!
Besides being able to explain some rather esoteric subjects, the author also has the ability to develop believable and likeable characters. Both Nao and Ruth become characters the reader will care about; both are developed so intricately that there is never any doubt that their behaviour is motivated and consistent with their personalities. I wondered whether I would find anything relatable in the diary of a suicidal teenager, but from the beginning I found myself drawn to this adolescent; I became as fascinated as Ruth is as she reads the diary.
This novel is very difficult to disentangle. The author briefly discusses “the interconnectedness of entanglement,” a principle of quantum mechanics, and her novel illustrates entanglement or intertwinement in that all elements work together to create a complex whole. Not one word or image is out of place; all contribute to the total meaning. The difficulty the reader or reviewer faces is doing justice to the book while discussing its separate elements.
This book is a must-read and will probably become a must-re-read for many. It is intelligent without being incomprehensible. It has everything: an interesting plot, credible and appealing characters, and thoroughly developed themes.