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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Name Is Sei Shonagon

Jan Blensdorf

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To purchase My Name Is Sei Shonagon

Title: My Name Is Sei Shonagon
Author: Jan Blensdorf
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 152 pages
Availability: My Name Is Sei Shonagon - US
My Name Is Sei Shonagon - UK
My Name Is Sei Shonagon - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : too forced, but some nice evocative parts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 18/10/2003 Rachel Hore
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 30/11/2003 Janice P. Nimura
Sunday Telegraph . 4/1/2004 Victoria Lane
TLS . 7/11/2003 Ranti Williams

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jan Blensdorf is from Australia, but her sensitive perceptions of a society in crisis make this modern pillow book well worth its plucking from the publisher's slush pile." - Rachel Hore, The Guardian

  • "This farfetched premise is less a plot than a showcase for Blensdorf's knowledge of Japan, ancient and modern. (...) Though she was clearly a more observant sojourner than most, it's disappointing to run across the same old chestnuts" - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The best aspect of this book is its examination of Japan by an outsider. (...) Blensdorf's book is a bit undirected -- a collection of impressions tacked together. But in fact it is let down by plot rather than the lack of it: specifically, a last-minute recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse." - Victoria Lane, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Where My Name Is Sei Shonagon is weak is in the creation of its central character. In her eagerness to surround her narrator with an air of mystery, Blensdorf deprives her of substance, and in attempting to suggest that her true identity is an enigma, she makes her a spectacularly unengaging person. (...) The overall effect is stilted and didactic and regrettably deprives this readable, occasionally well-written novel about a fascinating nation and cultutre of any real power or memorable qualities." - Ranti Williams, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The historical Sei Shonagon lived at the court of the Japanese empress in the tenth century. She wrote a Pillow Book of thoughts and reflections that has survived and remains popular to this day, offering a glimpse of Japanese court life at that time. Jan Blensdorf's novel is not about the historical figure, but rather a woman using the name in contemporary Japan.
       My Name Is Sei Shonagon is narrated by the woman who calls herself Sei Shonagon, and like the historical Pillow Book it also offers small thoughts and episodes -- though it is more reflective and retrospective, as the contemporary Sei Shonagon recounts much from her past. She is perhaps led to such introspection by her current position: she is in hospital, slipping (when the book begins) "in and out of a mental wakefulness that can't translate itself into speech, to movement".
       The woman's father was an American, who married a Japanese woman. Her parents died when she was still young, and she came to live with her strict and tradition-bound uncle in Japan.
       My Name Is Sei Shonagon offers extensive reflection on Japanese history, customs, and tradition, and the contrast to the encroaching modern world: Blensdorf constantly sets past and present side by side, her character living -- more than most -- on the boundary between them. She becomes a teller of tales, transporting her customers back to the times of old unseen from behind a screen in her incense shop, known to them only as Sei Shonagon.
       She gets married, but it is not a success, and she soon gets divorced and finds love elsewhere.
       Blensdorf's narrator presents her life fairly interestingly, and the complex emotions especially of the final love-story in the novel are fairly well conveyed. Throughout, however, she tries far too hard to bring in, at every possible point, bits of Japanese tradition or contemporary life. It all sounds far too studied, and occasionally even textbook-like -- despite her only using small bits and pieces. For those unfamiliar with all things Japanese this might be the right touch of the exotic, but much of it sounds very forced. There are interesting episodes and details, but there's little elaboration in this thin novel. The limp narrative voice -- well, she is essentially comatose for most of the book -- also doesn't work to best effect, again seeming forced, an author imposing a voice that doesn't feel natural to her.
       A quick read, My Name Is Sei Shonagon is of some interest, but ultimately not substantial enough. (Blensdorf presumably aims for this sketchy quality but she doesn't pull it off.)

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian journalist Jan Blensdorf lived in Tokyo for two years.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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