My Name is Sei Shonagon
Jan Blensdorf
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Buy *My Name is Sei Shonagon* online

My Name is Sei Shonagon

Jan Blensdorf
The Overlook Press
176 pages
October 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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My Name is Sei Shonagon is both breathtaking and disconcerting. It is beautifully written and yet somewhat disappointing in its ultimate storyline. This is the first novel by Jan Blensdorf, an Australian writer who lived in Tokyo for two years. Thoroughly modern, it is short with no conventional chapter demarcations. The book is 152 small pages, more a novella than a novel, and is primarily made up of descriptions of place and the narrator's thoughts rather than of dialogue. The book is cleverly tied together; in some ways, it reminds me of The Hours in its wrapping of story around story. However, the narrative line bears no similarity.

My Name is Sei Shonagon is a gentle, interior story, told from the point of view of a young Japanese-American woman who has lived most of her life in Tokyo. What is most fascinating about Blensdorf's novel is twofold: its connection to tenth-century Sei Shonagon (the contemporary narrator takes on her name), who kept a journal (entitled The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, still in print) about how to deal with male lovers, and its astute look into modern Japanese culture, especially men's attitudes toward work, love, sex and marriage. Here's one of her elderly client's thoughts on today's Japanese women:

"He blamed magazines and imported American TV -- Japanese channels should be ashamed of themselves: Star Trek maybe, but Sex and the City? Anyone could see the world was headed for trouble."
Her readers are let into thoughts seldom spoken of in polite Japanese society.

Her overbearing, tradition-bound Japanese uncle did much of the narrator's raising. As an adult, she inherits a small incense shop, which she runs, and above the shop, she listens to and counsels men behind a painted screen, as did the original Sei Shonagon, a female courtier. The modern Shonagon marries, divorces and falls in love with a French journalist.

The novel has a dreamlike, painterly quality. For example:

"On the day I took possession of the shop my legacy seemed to me both tangible and intangible: on the one hand the narrow building with its neat shelving and carefully prepared stock; on the other, the scents, escaping all order, rising from the lower floor to the upper like overlapping dreams, or an unfinished poem."
What is disturbing about this debut novel is the way it winds itself into something else entirely as the reader gradually learns the narrator's past life and relationships. It is as if the "Sei Shonagon" of the twenty-first century reveals more and more of herself as the painted screen drops. But this particular hook has been done and done and done. It is an old, unending story, but perhaps necessary to make a point about modern Japanese society.

Nevertheless, enough here is fresh to hold on to, to keep reading. The reader is given a privileged glance inside an often quiet, puzzling Japanese world. In fact, I may be one of the only reviewers to have any qualms about this fascinating novel. The rights to it were sold in eight countries before publication -- an enviable act for any writer, especially a first-time novelist.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book.

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