I have wanted to write this blog entry since I finished chapter 1, but I made myself wait until I was finished to be sure the book didn’t go off the rails somewhere before the end. It didn’t, so I can now recommend it without reservations.
The book is told by several characters in turn. We start with Nao Yasutani, a teenage girl in Tokyo who is writing in her diary. She was raised in California, but when the dot-com bubble burst her family returned to their native Japan. Nao is miserable there. She is a transfer student at a less-than-stellar public school because her Japanese skills are poor and her family has no money for tutors, and she is mercilessly bullied by her classmates. Her father is depressed because of his failure in America, and he has tried (and failed) to commit suicide. Nao fears he will eventually succeed. Nao herself wants to commit suicide, but she decides that it is important to first tell the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, before she ends it all.
Enter Ruth, a novelist, walking on the shore of her remote island in western Canada. She finds Nao’s diary and some other artifacts in a barnacle-covered freezer bag, and begins to read. Despite the fact that she SHOULD be working on her memoir, Ruth becomes obsessed with figuring out whether Nao is still alive, and what happened to her and her family. The package she found is full of clues – letters in Japanese from Nao’s uncle to her great-grandmother, her uncle’s secret diary and his Sky Soldier watch from World War II. Throughout the story, Ruth tries to find any reference to determine whether the Yasutanis survived their suicidal plans or the tsunami that may have washed away the package containing the diary in the first place – but every time she finds a clue online, it is later blocked, unavailable or can no longer be found. Ruth begins to fear for her sanity and her memory (her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and she dreads getting it too) as she loses track of time and can’t find clues that she knows were there the last time she looked.
Other parts of the story are told through Nao’s uncle’s letters and diary, and Ruth’s correspondence with a psychology professor who was friends with Nao’s father in California.
This book is worth reading for the magical, fleeting moments that join all of the characters and intertwine their lives, even though they never meet physically. The fantastical elements of the story – a displaced Japanese crow that links Ruth with Nao’s father, the dreams where Ruth visits Nao’s family members and delivers messages and artifacts, the visits Nao receives from her dead uncle’s ghost – all of these things are woven so subtly into the story that they seem completely plausible once you are immersed and grow to love the characters. The idea that Ruth’s husband Oliver proposes near the end – that the ending of Nao’s story depends on Ruth reading it – is tied in with his and Ruth’s musings on the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat, and when Oliver suggests that Nao is both alive and dead, depending on whether or not and when she is observed, I thought this sounded perfectly sensible.
This is the kind of book I love – one that leads you down a fanciful path that your rational mind knows isn’t real, but seems completely logical while you are on it. In that sense, this book reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison’s books, where characters suddenly fly or transform or return from the dead and you KNOW it isn’t possible, but it fits the story, so who can challenge it? Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate also comes to mind as a possible read-alike, in spirit if not in style.
Another thing I especially liked was all of the philosophies and scientific theories that were presented in this book in a very accessible way. They were usually presented by Oliver explaining them to Ruth, or Jiko (the great grandmother) explaining them to Nao. Because Ruth is a novelist and Nao is a teenager, and neither has studied much philosophy or physics, Oliver and Jiko have to present them in a way that is easy to understand, and this made them easy for me as well.