Cover image for My name is Sei Shōnagon
My name is Sei Shōnagon
Blensdorf, Jan.
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Publication Information:
Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 2003.
Physical Description:
152 pages ; 22 cm
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In a small incense shop in modern Tokyo, amid the manic consumerism of cartoon-colored Shibuya youth culture, incense is still made in the ancient way--slowly ground by hand and matured over time. Above the shop, a young woman sits behind a painted screen, listening to men unburden themselves about their work-dominated lives. She calls herself "Sei Shonagon," after the eleventh-century woman who wrote The Pillow Book. This exquisite first novel is a Pillow Book for the twenty-first century; its "Sei" is a young woman who, as a child, moved to Japan from America to live with her strict, tradition-obsessed uncle after the death of her parents, an American academic and a Japanese student. As the novel opens, "Sei," now a young woman, lies in a hospital bed, hearing sounds around her, unable to speak except silently to herself-"I don't even know if you are still alive...I'm going to talk to you anyway, tell you everything I remember." Thus her story unfolds, back to a dark past and toward an unimaginable fate.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The strife a child endures goes a long way toward shaping her adult identity. That's the case with Sei Shonagon, which is not her real name but a pseudonym taken from the catty author of the famed Japanese pillow book, which details the more sensual side of ancient court life. Arriving in her mother's homeland after the death of her American father, this young girl clings hopelessly to the dream that her mother's listlessness will vanish once they settle in Japan, but the young Sei soon finds herself alone and trapped with a strict and terrible uncle who loathes the sight of his half-Japanese heir. She grows to read his moods, a talent she will use wisely when she inherits the family's incense shop and reads the lives of men from behind a curtain. This is the first novel of Australian journalist Blensdorf, who wrote it while living in Tokyo. She richly captures the city's magnetic relationship with modern-day consumerism and its firmly rooted traditions readily traced back to the ancient world. --Elsa Gaztambide Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Blensdorf, an Australian journalist, spins two years she spent in Tokyo into a brief, poetic novel about a Japanese-American woman's search for herself amid displacement, tragedy and cultural conflict. "I don't know what it is that is broken," muses the narrator at the novel's opening. "Only that I slip in and out of a mental wakefulness that can't translate itself to speech, to movement." Confined to a hospital bed, she recounts her tumultuous family history, starting with the sudden death of her American father when the family was living in New York. The girl and her mother return to Japan to live with the girl's uncle, a dark brute with little patience for American ways. She recalls her study of calligraphy and painting, and her mother's unhappiness and eventual suicide, weaving in memories of a more recent past, in which she inherits the family's incense shop and becomes the de facto confessor of her troubled clients, shielded by a screen and the nom de guerre Sei Shonagon, the 10th-century author of The Pillow Book. Sei meets her demanding future husband through her uncle, who becomes infuriated when the unhappy couple divorces. She then falls in love with Alain, a French photographer who comes "to write about the otherness of this country in images." But bliss is not to be, as her uncle becomes an avenging force in a simultaneously reserved and shocking climax. Blensdorf's controlled prose, weighty with description and portentousness, can be beautiful but also murky, and the plot's stab at suspense falls short. Still, this is an affecting debut, a troubling story with bits of brightness. Foreign rights sold in France, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Spain and the U.K. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A young Tokyo woman who calls herself Sei Shonagon (after the 11th-century author of The Pillow Book) is comatose but talks silently to herself in her hospital bed. Sei speaks of her American father, who died when she was very young; her Japanese mother, who died shortly after returning to Japan; and her strict, traditional uncle, with whom she lived after her parents' death. She grows up, marries badly, divorces, and finally takes up the occupation of the original Sei Shonagon, talking to men from behind a painted screen. As the men unburden themselves about their jobs and stress, Sei listens and grows into her own person. Written with exquisite style, this moody, atmospheric first novel transports the reader to today's Tokyo, sharply contrasting Sei's uncle's revered traditions with the hustle-bustle of the modern, fast-paced, consumer society. The surprise ending merges the old Tokyo with the new as it explains why Sei is in the hospital. A truly fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture by an Australian journalist who lived there for two years, this is recommended for all libraries.-Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.