Published: March 12, 2013
Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Sunburst Award for Adult (2014), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2013)
This is a beautiful novel that drew me in immediately. A barnacle encrusted bag washes up on the shores of a quiet island off the coast of British Columbia to be found by Ruth. Ruth is a character loosely based on the author herself. Ruth and her husband have lived on the island for decades and never had children. Her life’s work has been writing, and she is currently working on her autobiography, but she is also suffering memory lapses. Inside the plastic bag is a diary of a 14 year old Japanese girl written in purple ink on the pages of what on the outside one would expect to be Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. Also in the bag are a second diary written in French, and a watch. Ruth’s husband, Oliver, immediately questions whether this could be jetsam or flotsam, part of the trash washed into the ocean after the giant tsunami struck Japan years earlier.
Nao, the author of the mysterious diary, states she is writing in these “last days of her life” to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko. She never gets to the actual biography of Jiko, but instead details the extreme bullying she has endured, her contemplations of suicide and the spiritual journey she undergoes with her grandmother to develop her own superpower. Nao spent her younger growing up years in California, but when her father loses his high powered corporate job in Silicon Valley, the family moves back to Japan. Nao had been living a middle class life, attending school with close friends and enjoying an active social life in California. Suddenly, she is thrust back to a country whose culture and social norms she is unfamiliar and living with her parents, in a tiny one bedroom apartment. Her mother initially spends her days staring at jellyfish in the aquarium. Her father, a seemingly depressed caricature of his former self, is unsuccessful at finding a job and also at suicide. He actually is arrested for failed suicide. Nao, although Japanese, is seen as quite different for having grown up in California. She is mercilessly bullied, both physically and emotionally, by the students and teachers.
Interestingly, we learn Nao’s story as Ruth is reading it and interacting with it, seemingly affecting changes to the story by actions in her dreams. In this way the two characters are very much linked in some seemingly real but magical way. It almost seems like they become one character as the story is being read, two parts of a whole. This effect is concurrent with the theme of time and Nao being a “time-being.” Nao, which is pronounced “now,” likes to think of herself as existing in this moment. The concept and fluency of time within this novel is a key theme. The connectedness of beings across generations and continents is important. This is part of the Buddhist philosophy that plays an integral role in the spiritual journey Nao undergoes as the diary unfolds in Ruth’s hands.
Nao’s life is certainly at a pivotal point as she contemplates suicide while sitting in a French cafe trying to avoid “dates” (being pimped out to customers). However, Ruth also undergoes this spiritual journey alongside Nao. She had cared for her mother who has recently died and feels like her life is slipping away. She is contemplating leaving the sparsely populated island and moving to the city. Reading Nao’s diary has Ruth pondering Buddhist philosophy and engaging in the connectedness of all things.
Nao tells of how she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother Jiko. She begins a soul searching journey as she gets to know her grandmother. She practices zazen meditation, bath rituals, and tries to develop her superpower, because everyone needs a superpower. She also begins recognizing the superpower in others, even eventually her father whom she viewed as a “freeter.” Her father becomes an even greater hero, when he finds a new life’s purpose in developing a “mu mu” which will hide one’s past and present on the computer.
I loved the timelessness of this book and the Buddhist philosophy that is life changing for so many of the characters within this novel. There is real darkness and depths of despair for the characters Nao and Haruki #2 that are overcome through a spiritual journey, where they learn appreciation of ancestors and each other. They begin to appreciate the duality of all things. I found it fascinating that the author wrote herself into this book as Ruth, connecting herself with these characters as well. There are many layers and depths and truths contained within the lovely novel. I highly recommend it to everyone.
- Discuss the Japanese culture of bullying. Compare and contrast this with bullying in the United States. How does cyberbullying take bullying to a whole different level?
- Why do you think that Nao participates in bullying Daisuke? Why do you think the teacher participates?
- Compare and contrast American and Japanese cultures in the areas of intensity of schooling, therapy, self improvement and bullying.
- Compare and contrast Haruki #1 and Nao. Consider how they were bullied, their writing, and suicidal ideations.
- Haruki #2 wanted to know what defined conscience. Discuss the reasons that led to the loss of his job. In what ways are Haruki #1 and #2 similar?
- Explain what a “freeter” is and who in this novel might be perceived as a “freeter?”
- How would you say time is defined in this novel? What does it mean to be a time-being?
- What Buddhist philosophies did you agree with or appreciate?
- Jiko teaches Nao and guides her on a spiritual journey by teaching her daily practices and rituals. How do you think these affect Nao? Do you think Nao would have done better with some other form of therapy?
- What does the presence of the jungle crow represent to Ruth and Oliver? What does it represent to you, the reader?
- There is a theme of global connectedness in this novel. Discuss the ways in which countries and beings across continents are connected. How does the internet affect this connectedness?
- There is also a theme about social and environmental connectedness on a global level. Discuss the ways in which this was touched on within the novel.