Ruth Ozeki explores notions of doubleness, causality, honour, and time in clever, sometimes deeply affecting ways in her luminous new novel. Ozeki’s protagonist, with whom she shares a first name, is a middle-aged writer of Japanese ancestry who lives on an under-populated island off the B.C. coast. On the beach one day, Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted bag. The box contains a number objects, including what appears to be a copy of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but which turns out to be the diary of a 16-year-old girl from Tokyo named Nao.
Ruth has been suffering from writer’s block—she’s attempting to write a memoir—and doesn’t need more distractions. But her discovery proves, like the novel that contains it, potently irresistible. Nao’s diary is more like a series of letters addressed to an imaginary “you.” Readily assuming the role of mute pen pal, Ruth is distraught when she comes to understand Nao’s dual aim. In the first place, she wants to tell the story of Jiko, her plucky grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun (Ozeki herself recently became a Zen Buddhist priest). More ominously, however, she plans to chronicle her own end: Nao plans to commit suicide when she’s completed her account.
Nao’s despair stems from her family’s return to Tokyo from California. Perennially unemployed, her father has been suicidal ever since the move. At school, Nao is mercilessly bullied; her schoolmates going so far as to hold a mock funeral for her. A temporary reprieve comes in the form of a summer stay at Jiko’s monastery, where Nao learns about her father’s uncle Haruki, a kamikaze pilot in the war whose apparent bravery puts her father’s ineffectiveness in an even worse light.
Across the Pacific, Ruth scours the Internet for clues as to whether Nao and her father are still alive. What follows is a virtuoso bit of intertextuality in which Ruth, who can’t seem to write her own memoir, attempts to affect the outcome of someone else’s.
Though Ruth is clearly intended as a semi-autobiographical portrait of the author, it’s Nao, in all her angsty adolescent dismissiveness, that Ozeki truly pulls off (here’s an author who should be writing YA novels). My only disappointment was the last-minute crash course in quantum physics Ruth’s husband offers as an explanation for the causal connection that develops between Ruth and Nao. We don’t need the show and tell: Ozeki’s powerful writing builds a world that feels like its own justification.
– Emily Donaldson, a freelance reviewer and editor