By Liza Dalby
Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Translation quality: N/A
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation: If you love historical novels, this beautifully imagined tale really brings 11th century Japanese court intrigues to life
You probably recognize Liza Dalby as the author of Geisha and Kimono, the highly acclaimed books that came out of the doctoral research she did while living (and performing shamisen!) as a member of a Kyoto okiya (geisha house) for a year. But did you know she writes fabulous fiction too?
The Tale of Murasaki is a wonderfully imagined story, based on the life of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Lady Murasaki actually was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court in the 11th century, and Dalby’s book dishes up all the wealth and intrigue that promises.
The emperor’s court was a hotbed of arts and culture during the Heian Period, but it was also an era in which the emperor shared power with the Fujiwara clan, which controlled the military. Member of that powerful family dominated the ranks of court nobles for decades, and a peculiar kind of social climbing was king. Daughters were much more prized than sons in that rarified society—because a daughter could marry an emperor or become an emperor’s mother—and works by women are still the most famous literature from that time.
Dalby enjoyably mines The Tale of Genji and records of life in those times to craft the story of Lady Murasaki’s life. Historical figures weave in and out of The Tale of Murasaki, and Dalby’s meticulously researched characters are based on facts that are actually known about their movements and accomplishments.
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had