Normally, the written word carries a person's voice and story through a void of time. But in this engrossing new novel, the story also crosses an ocean, when the plastic-wrapped diary of a Tokyo girl washes up off the coast of British Columbia.
American-born author Ruth Ozeki alternates viewpoints between the diary of Nao, a bullied and suicidal Japanese teen, and Ruth, the writer's-blocked novelist who rescued it. (Ozeki's decision to name her fictional protagonist -- also a writer, also of partial Japanese ancestry, also a transplanted New Yorker -- after herself is clearly a deliberate one.
Charles Yu did the same thing in 2010 with his novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and his choice betrayed a deep personal connection to the subject matter.
While Ruth's sections take a tight third-person perspective, her inner thoughts encroach on Nao's tale through the footnotes she makes, which sometimes stray beyond the technical into the emotional. References to appendices at book's end also reinforce the idea that Ruth is reading right along with us during Nao's sections, while Google and YouTube searches further fill in on Nao's story during Ruth's sections.
Notwithstanding The Neverending Story and House of Leaves (which also employed a footnote-based wraparound story), it's not easy to make the tale of someone reading something else riveting. Ozeki, though, achieves an expert balance, steadily ramping up the tension in both stories, always leaving the reader wanting more as each section ends. It's fair to say she's written two entwined, rather than parallel, stories into a unified whole.
Though that's not all. Tertiary and quaternary stories also unfold over the course of the book: Nao's great-uncle, a Second World War kamikaze pilot; Nao's father, who attempts suicide by lying in front of a train.
The entire novel is steeped in history and the shadow of major world events. The closing months of the last great war. The 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 2011 tsunami, which may have carried Nao's diary to the lonely island off B.C.'s coast. This particular disaster is in Ruth's past, but Nao's future.
Some writers shy away from the implications of modern technology for their ability to maintain tension and mystery (it's become a Hollywood cliché that everybody loses their cellphone service in the first act of a thriller). Ozeki, however, bravely faces the Internet, allowing an obsessive Ruth to dredge up bits and pieces of information that may or may not pertain to the eventual fate of her dear, vulnerable Nao.
Of course, by narrative necessity, she still isn't able to discover the conclusion of the story until the very last page. But these outside sources of information provide additional colour and perspective on the story, and tie in well with the found narrative device of discovering a washed-up diary in the first place.
That the tantalizingly inconclusive nature of this outside information does not come across as contrived is a further testament to the writer's skill.
Ozeki has painted an absorbing, insightful portrait on the nature of loss, pain and hope.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.