Liza Dalby's novel is a brilliantly imagined chronicle of the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu. As we soon discover, our narrator has a good many doubts about the writing life. "As I pondered this question of how to be a success at court," she muses, "I came to the conclusion that literary ambition was more likely than not to bring a woman to a bad end." Happily, the real-life Murasaki persisted, and went on to become the author of the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. For The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby draws on this groundbreaking masterpiece and on the surviving fragments of Murasaki's own diary and poetry, along with another masterpiece of the Heian period, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The result is a vivid and emotionally detailed portrait of an intelligent, sensitive, and complex woman.
In Dalby's novel, Murasaki writes her first stories about Prince Genji's amorous encounters in order to entertain her friends, and to express her own creative temperament. As the stories gain a wider public, however, they are transformed into a conduit for observations on the mores and intrigues of court life. And in the end, as the narrator struggles to stay true to her literary vision, her tales are inflected by Buddhist thought and become parables on the transience and beauty of the world:
I have always felt compelled to set down a vision of things I have heard and seen. Life itself has never been enough. It only became real for me when I fashioned it into stories. Yet, somehow, despite all I've written, the true nature of things I've tried to grasp in my fiction still manages to drift through the words and sit, like little piles of dust, between the lines. Dalby is an anthropologist by trade, who has produced two previous nonfiction studies: Kimono and Geisha. And given that her research for Geisha gained her the distinction of being the only Westerner ever to have trained in that much misunderstood profession, it's no surprise that she is able to reconstruct 11th-century Japan with meticulous fidelity. It's all there--the political and sexual machinations, the preoccupations with clothing and custom, the difficult and tenuous position of courtiers, the intensity of female friendships in a male-dominated society--and the author shows us precisely how Murasaki's sensibilities were shaped by the culture in which she lived. This is a rich and convincing debut, and another chapter in the current resurrection of the historical novel. --Burhan Tufail [via]