A meditation on cherry blossoms, suicide, Hello Kitty lunchboxes, cats, bullying, ancient Buddhist nuns, crows, kamikaze pilots, Marcel Proust, quantum theory and much much more.
Ruth Ozeki’s wonderful novel will not leave me alone, but continues to playfully and seriously engage me
Ozeki is a Japanese/American/Canadian, and an incredibly fine writer and a Buddhist priest.
This novel is written in two voices. The first is that of a 15 and then 16 year old Japanese girl, Nao. Nao was born in Japan but her parents moved to America when she was 3. She feels American to herself. Now they have moved back to Japan and all is not well. Japanese culture is remarkably weird to her, and her experiences are pretty horrendous. Nao begins to write a diary about all the things which happen to her, but she is also trying to write the life story of her great grandmother, an 104 year old feminist and Buddhist nun.
The second voice is the voice of Ruth, a Japanese/American/Canadian writer who has moved from Manhattan to British Columbia with her husband.
The novel is the journey of these two voices and their worlds. The plot is elliptical, flowing, lateral, sideways, patterned and playful.
I’m deliberately saying nothing about how these worlds and voices connect and form something lovely – tender, horrendous, shocking, charming – because this is a book which demands the reader to have the experience, be surprised, be amused, be sickened, be saddened, laugh, cry.
Part of what Ozeki is exploring is reality itself, time, beings in time, writers and readers, lots about mathematical theories, but mainly expressed through the deep and playful view of Nao’s grandmother – oppositions and paradoxes are all held. As old Jiko says :
Up, down, same thing
Oh and there are lovely little footnotes to help you learn Japanese phrases and recognise kanji
How can you not be intrigued by a book which starts with one of the main characters sitting in a French Maid Café, Fifi’s Lovely Apron (soon to become Fifi’s Lonely Apron), in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to Edith Pilaf.
However, be warned, this switches from light to dark and back again, repeatedly – it is, after all, about everything in time.
In also exploring the connection between writer and reader – who is it that is writing, who is it that reads, and the inevitable co-creation arising, she does far more than play elegant but empty writerish games. Neither writing nor reading are wholly dynamic or receptive acts; many writers report the sense of character arising and dictating their story – this is also something actors are familiar with. The logical sense may say I, it is I that does the writing/performing, but there is another sense in which some other self observes writing or performing arising – and even a sense of the self that observes being inhabited by the what is, arising.
And – (this is surely the difference between reading and being read to, or being an audience in a live performance and being an audience for a film) the reader is inhabiting and co-creating what is read – the sense the reader receives from the book will be fed into and affected by the reader themselves – the reader is IN time, the reader pauses, does other things in their time, perhaps with the book tangling away at them, then returns to read, and the new now the reader reads from changes what is received. In live arts, the collective and individual now of the audience co-creates the performance which is in progress.
Another way of describing this, reeling in something from John Fowles’ The Magus:
Water or Wave? How does this become that – and isn’t it and and, as well as either or
Up, Down, Same Thing; Not Same, Not Different
I am now buying Ozeki’s earlier 2 novels. What I particularly like is her ability to inhabit some serious debates about all sorts of topics, from the environment, to warfare, to mathematical theories but to explain clearly, playfully, engagingly. A light touch serious writer, sage and fool combined.
I received this as an ARC from the Amazon Vine programme UK. And what an amazing gift it proved to be