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
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
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.