3 May 2010

Jan Blensdorf, My Name is Sei Shonagon, 2004

The rights to this novel were reportedly sold to eight countries before publication, an enviable record for a debut novelist. Aiming at being a modern rendering of Sei Shonagon’s 11th century Pillow Book, it’s the story of a Japanese-American woman who inherits a Tokyo incense shop and finds herself acting as counsel to the insecure inner lives of her customers. It’s a ‘spiegel im spiegel’ of interiors, constantly looking further into the life of ‘Sei’ and how she engages with the lives of other people, lives far more interesting than her own which seems to have had most of the joy written out of it. This book is also good for providing a discreet look inside the private behaviours of present-day Japanese who come across as a nation mostly fearful of offending each other, largely reflecting what generations of Japanese would still see as the truth despite the excesses of post-war Western influence. As a whole it has the feel of a book that’s been assembled from disparate parts and rewritten maybe too much, all pieced together with the joins and spikes of interest smoothed over. It is observant and artfully prismatic, though not quite as engaging as I’d hoped for.  PY


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