Unlike Judge Kiesling, I didn’t immediately love A Tale for the Time Being. I initially found Naoko irritating and grating but over time I realised this was a cover for her deeper hurt, loneliness and pain. Naoko relates all manner of bullying and physical assault, as well as parental dysfunction, in such a calm, detached manner that it took me a while to see her behind it. The counterpoint of Ruth (the character, not the author) was a fairly instant hit. Her slow pace of life and her everyday concerns as she tries to write in coastal Canada made for a perfect contrast to Nao’s hyperactive, over-the-top Tokyo. Her love and concern for Nao pulled me through until I loved her too and I’m glad the seafaring journal found her because otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck around to discover Nao’s incredible Zen Buddhist great grandmother and kamikaze pilot uncle.
The commentators have been calling it (and Hill William) a ‘kitchen sink stories’ for the way they bring in all manner of weird facts, tangling bits of different timelines and philosophies in some sort of metphysical soup. However the parts I liked best were the moments of everyday interraction: Ruth and her enigmatic partner, Nao and Jiko taking chill baths together, Ruth getting overinvolved in the ten-year-old daily life of a girl to the point where she really just wants to reach out and help.
Judge Kiesling quotes Ruth responding to a concern that ‘narrative preferences’ are getting in the way of her objective search. ‘I can’t help it,’ Ruth replies. ‘My narrative preferences are all I’ve got.’ I think this could double as the motto for ToB. My narrative preferences are what make me rush to the end each day to see if the book I’m rooting for has gone through to another round. And it’s a desire to appreciate the narrative preferences of others that make me go back and read the judgements multiple times. Because I’m always happy to find more justifications for my own preferences or, even more, see how they may have got in the way of engaging with something.