*Disclaimer: spoilers ahead*
What Brought Me to Read This: Book of the month for my Culver City Books and Beer Club!
I really adored this book and the way it played with time. It tells the story of Naoko (or the more succinct monikier, Nao), a young Japanese girl growing up in Silicon Valley with her immigrant parents. Life is idyllic – her father is a hip, happy, and well-valued software programmer at a cutting edge company in the late 1990s, while her mother contentedly leads an elegant lifestyle, swathed in designer brands.
Then the dot-com bubble hits, leaving Naoko’s father jobless and her family impoverished, as they watch all their savings (invested in dot com stocks) hit rock bottom. Without the father’s work visa, they are expelled back to Japan, where they live in the slums of Tokyo. Nao, a foreigner to her homeland, is subject to merciless ijime, or bullying in Japanese. Ijime is much different from American bullying. It is a more subtle and finely tuned psychological warfare than the blunt aggression of American bullying.
Ruth, a Japanese American in present day, learns all about Nao when a water-tight package washes up on the shores of the Canadian island where she lives. The package contains Nao’s diary, a confession of all the sadness that transpires in her life. She is given relief from this when her great grandmother, Jiko, a 104 year old Zen Buddhist nun takes Nao in for the summer and teaches her how to find peace in the face of her pain.
While with Jiko, Nao discovers the secret diary of Jiko’s first born son, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot who perished during World War II. The diary reveals the harsh ijime that Haruki was subject to as well, making Nao feel foolish for complaining of her own adolescent struggles.
Meanwhile, Ruth reflects on the diary within the diary, feeling ridiculous that her own great tribulations revolve around recovering her lost cat, who has run away.
The narrative, though, is mercilessly beautiful. As Ruth and her husband read Nao’s diary, I loved being privy to their discussions, feeling almost as though the three of us had a small book club discussing what was happening in Nao’s life.
As the book progresses, it gets pretty trippy. Nao converses with Haruki’s ghost, and the words in Nao’s diary disappear and then reappear while Ruth reads them, as though rewriting themselves. In a dream sequence, Ruth travels back in time to Nao’s world, seemingly changing the course of Nao’s events. It’s almost like some kind of Japanese Back to the Future. Yet, there is a layer of ambiguity – Ruth’s mother suffered from Alzheimers, and the seed is planted that Ruth may be experiencing a mental disconnect from reality, perhaps explaining the otherwise surreal phenomena that surround the diary.
A favorite theme that Ruth Ozeki brings up is one borrowed from Proust “In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps have never seen in himself.” As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, we gain great insight into her psyche, and perhaps our own as we react to the hurdles that Nao encounters.