16-year-old Nao moved from America to Japan, where her Dad can’t find a job and is drinking and her classmates bully her mercilessly. From a French-maid cafe where costumed girls welcome the male guests warmly – and more – she starts writing what she means to be a biography of her amazing Grandmother, but what turns into a diary. Miles away and years later, novelist Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a watch, some letters and a diary inside washed up on the beach of the island they live on off Canada. For Ruth, Nao’s story takes her attention from her book, her partner and their cat and she is determined to find out what happened to Nao and to her family.
So, as you can see from the length of the synopsis, this is a fairly complex set up. The two story lines alternate, us discovering Nao’s story at the same time as Ruth, and taking in the two different things at once – plus a deluge of information and reference to a plethora of different topics. At first, I really really liked this book. Then I got a bit bored, but then towards the end it picked up again. It shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize, and with so many thoughtful elements in it I can see why. And on reflection, in writing this review, I think I liked it. There is absolutely no doubt at all the Nao’s storyline was my favourite. In fact I think I possibly even skimmed’s Ruth’s bits and possibly missed out – because I wanted to get back to Nao. Ozeki portrays Nao’s teenage self extremely convincingly, and she’s an intriguing character that, like Ruth, I was desperate to get to know. Her life is pretty traumatic, but her character trajectory from start to finish was interesting, especially as it was portrayed through her narrative and to an extent you had to read between the lines.
Nao discusses time, and various philosophical concepts, quite a lot, and I really enjoyed this too. The idea of being a ‘time being’ – as we all are – and searching for the ‘NOW’ worked well and did add to the dual narrative, which started to interweave more towards the end. I really enjoyed this mysterious melding of past and present, and it was done in a quite nice understated way.
I think I’d perhaps have liked another layer to this; I suppose we are meant to think Ruth in the novel is a fictionalised version of Ruth the author, and therefore we are the third time being to encounter Nao’s story, but I feel like this could have been pushed further.
I really enjoyed the use and discussion of the internet within this book; Nao’s bullies use it to humiliate her and Ruth searches endlessly, when she has a connection, for any trace of Nao. Nao seems most happy when away with Jiko her grandmother, and away from the internet; whereas Ruth is frustrated at the seeming impossibility of finding any trace of her or her family.
I also really liked the presence of Jiko, who Nao comes to idolise and refer to as a sage, texting her for wisdom and advice. As a novelist, feminist and Buddhist monk she is pretty awesome!
As well as all of this there were all sorts of other things in the book such as references to tsunamis, the oceans, feminism, Silicon Valley, Biculturalism, ecology, origami… but I found that to keep afloat I had to kind of ignore some things and focus on the story.
Which just about worked. I liked this book, but I’m not going to shout about it or go crazy recommending it to all my friends.