Quite by chance I fell upon two books that are linked, very tenuously, by oceans. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann speaks for itself, the other book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, spans the Pacific Ocean.
Since I read the Ozeki first, I will start with that. In case you do not already know this, Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest and her new novel is full of Zen thought and indeed, practice.
A piece of flotsam from across the Pacific Ocean, arrives on a remote Canadian beach and is picked up by Ruth, a writer who lives on this island with her husband, Oliver who is an eco-botanist. I think he is something of a recluse with a touch of autism, though this is never fully spelt out. He is an autodidact and has an uncanny knack of being able to link very disparate elements into a coherence that an ordinary person might not understand, and indeed notices relevances that Ruth often misses.
The flotsam is an ice-cooler bag in which there is a red Hello Kitty lunchbox the contents of which Ruth is preparing to jettison, but Oliver opens it and finds a Seiko watch, a bundle of letters in Japanese wrapped in oilskin with a notebook written in French and, apparently, a copy of A la recherche de temps perdu. Neither of them have read this masterwork by Proust but they are not going to read it in French, but Ruth flicks it open anyway and discovers to her astonishment, that it is actually a diary of sorts written in gel pen by someone called Nao Yasutani.
Part of the mystery is how this piece of flotsam reached the Canadian shoreline. Muriel, a beachcomber thinks it is unlikely to be part of the stuff that was washed out to sea after the Japanese Earthquake in 2011, she thinks it is still too soon for it to be that. Ruth reads the diary and needs to know more…
The unfolding story which switches methodically between Ruth’s story and Naoko’s is a narrative that dwells on secret writings, time beings and time fluctuations, but it is so skilfully written that the reader is absolutely compelled to follow avidly to the end to find out what happens.
The double whammy is that Ruth is one reader and Nao, the writer; but Ruth Ozeki is also the writer and I am the reader, and it doesn’t take a student of Zen to know that all these layers of intention and meaning are part of the time continuum. We are all Time Beings, whirling through space and time and our connectedness to real time events and events in the past are a thread that binds and holds us, even as Now becomes Then.
At the beginning of Part II there is a quotation from Proust (from Le temps retrouvé)
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 permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.
How very true! Of A Tale for the Time Being especially.
Transatlantic is an historical novel, like the previous book though, it is multi-layered and the connections only begin to unfold as one reaches the towards the end.
We start the book with a flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland by Alcock and Brown in 1919, witnessed by Emily Erlich and her daughter Lottie, Emily is a journalist and Lottie a photographer. In Brown’s pocket is a letter from Emily to a family called Jennings at an address in Cork. Then we are already in Ireland, but it is 1845 and a black abolitionist called Frederick Douglass is campaigning throughout Ireland, which already had a strong identification with the Anti-Slave movement, with all its connotations of anti-British feeling and at the same time there is the very beginning of the potato famine, which, when revealed accidentally to Frederick Douglass shocks him to the core since his own experience has never exposed him to such unmitigated want and malnutrition. At the house of Richard Webb, he sees a maid called Lily, he meets her later on at another house, the house of Isabel Jennings, she has run away and is going to America. We are then projected forward to 1998 and the Good Friday Accord in Ireland. Senator George Mitchell is busy shuttling across the Atlantic and this is hopefully his final visit, while he is there he happens to meet Lottie Erlich, now a very old woman in a wheelchair.
By the time you start Book II, you might be wondering whether this is in a true sense a novel, or merely a collection of long stories. But slowly and with wonderful mastery, Colum McCann unpacks the portmanteau, piece by piece the links are revealed and all the different threads are drawn together in a wonderful synchronicity.
Everything about these books urges the reader on, the extraordinary skill of both writers in the slow build up and the gradual revelation, but like life itself there are still mysteries, things that remain unexplained and yet are very revealing. Satisfyingly brilliant – I hope the remaining eleven books continue in this vein.