The first few pages of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker longlisted novel are electrifying. The reader – so used to being a wallflower – all of a sudden has nowhere to hide. From the off we are called into conversation by Nao, a smart-mouthed, hyperactive teenage girl who is writing to us in the pages of her diary from a table in a French maids’ café in Tokyo. Nao wants to be friends. But this first encounter also serves as a lesson in how and how not to read: the moment an impression of our narrator starts to solidify, it is suddenly swept aside, as Nao questions or corrects herself. Think she’s a pervert? You have to double back. Find her dippy? It’s you that trusted too fast. ‘Assumptions and expectations will kill any relationship,’ says Nao.
A lack of expectations is a state of mind worth maintaining through A Tale for the Time Being, a work of extraordinary richness and strangeness. The basic plot alternates between the story of Nao and that of Ruth, an author living on the west coast of Canada. Out one day