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Review: The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby

Summary from the back cover:

In a wonderful world shaped by beauty and poetry, ancient traditions and popular intrigue, a young woman at the centre of the eleventh-century Japanese imperial court observes the exotic world around her.  Murasaki sees everything, the Emperor and Empress, aristocrats and concubines, warriors and servants, her own family.  She records a remarkable place of political and sexual plotting, male power and female manipulation, as she writes the Tale of Genji, the masterpiece of Japanese literature.

For whatever reason, The Tale of Murasaki and I didn’t really get along very well.  I had it out from the library for several months and it never really managed to capture my attention in the first few pages, so I always put it aside in favor of something else.  When I realized I was going to move and change libraries, I knew it was time to read it or I was probably never going to.  Unfortunately it never really improved on the first few pages.  I found myself very detached from the narrator, Murasaki, and it irked me that the description (as you see) promised court life when that only comprised the last third of the book.  For the most part Murasaki was a passive character, feverishly writing Genji stories but not too in control of her own destiny.  I was interested in all the details, but I just felt like I could never really get into the story and appreciate it properly.

I also think it would have been helpful had I read The Tale of Genji beforehand, because apparently the author parallels their stories, and some other contemporary Japanese literature, in interesting ways.  Unfortunately, since I am vastly inexperienced with Japanese lit, this didn’t work out so well for me, and I was sorry I tried it without reading Genji first.  That still sounds interesting, so I suspect I will give it a shot soon.

Lastly, I can’t really discount the fact that I read this at a somewhat stressful time when most books seemed to be leaving me dissatisfied, so if the premise remains interesting to you, it may still be worth reading.  It certainly gets across the feel of medieval Japan, it’s just a shame that I was never really interested in the story or the characters.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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13 comments to Review: The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby

  • Aw, sorry to hear this was such a let down for you! I have it on my tbr pile and now I wonder :\ Hopefully I’ll be better to get on with it.
    .-= Nymeth´s last blog ..The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck =-.

  • I’m currently reading The Tale of Genji and if this book is anything like Genji then I can imagine the confusion. I hope to read Liza Dalby’s book at some point and I was hoping it would make Genji a bit clearer! I think their culture is just so different to ours that it can get a bit confusing.
    .-= Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last blog ..Small Island – Andrea Levy =-.

  • This doesn’t sound like the book for me, because I know next to nothing about Japan’s history.

  • A book should be enjoyable even if you don’t all the literature references in it, imo. Or they could have used footnotes to fill in those details–I mean, how many Westerners are conversant with Japanese Lit, in general? Not that many.
    .-= heidenkind´s last blog ..Classics Month Meme: Overlooked Classics =-.

  • Hi!
    I have an award for you at my place. Have a great day!

    Sherrie
    Just Books
    .-= Sherrie´s last blog ..BEAUTIFUL BLOGGER AWARD =-.

  • The plot sounds interesting to me. And I have not read anything on medieval Japan too, I think I will give the 2 books a try in the future.
    .-= Veens´s last blog ..Cover Attractions!! =-.

  • This is probably not for me — although I think I would love the medieval Japan setting, Tale of the Genji wasn’t my favorite.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Featuring . . . The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha =-.

  • I read this ages ago, and I had much the same reaction as you did. There was way too much description of clothing I thought. I did not need to know how every single obi looked!
    .-= Lenore´s last blog ..Book Review: Soldier X by Don Wulffson =-.

  • Describing clothing is exactly what Lady Murasaki would have done. I did read just about half of Tale of Genji and I do intend to finish it some day. Parts of it are wonderful, some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, but it’s a 1000 year old novel, written at a time when there were literally no other novels to compare it to. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from a novel.

    I do think you could read just a few chapters from it, pick them at random if you like, and enjoy them as you would a short story. Most of the chapters are self-contained really.
    .-= cbjames´s last blog ..Sunday Salon: I have abandonment issues =-.

  • chelonianmobile

    Oh, that has been in my TBR forever. Now I am a little more wary of it, though technically it should be right up my alley. Of course, I never did finish Genji. Maybe in a few years. Stick with the first ten or so chapters and then find some good summaries for the subsequent forty-four.

    You might like The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, if you haven’t read it. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki’s, and in another time she would have made an excellent blogger. The two women did not particularly like one another.

  • Thanks for the honest review, I’ll skip this one!
    .-= Swapna´s last blog ..Book Review: Young Bess – Margaret Irwin =-.

  • I have been interested in this book for quite awhile, but judging from your experience with it I think I might skip it. It sounds like it had a hard time delivering what you expected, and the fact that I have not read Genji also worries me in relation to this book. Thanks so much for all your honesty about this book, I really appreciate it.
    .-= zibilee´s last blog ..Winner of Raven Stole the Moon! =-.

  • AMPM25

    I too, have a passion for historical Chinese & Japense fiction.. But have no real knowledge of eithers history. I adored Chinese Cinderella, Falling Leaves, Memoirs of a Geisha & couldn’t put The Last Empress. But have seriously struggled to get through this book, and at 2/3s of the way through I’m considering putting it down altogether.
    From the wonderful descriptions of court life in The Last Empress, I agree that it doesn’t fulfill what it promises in the blurb.
    I feel frustrated with the character, who is never satisfied, depressed & quite frankly enjoys spending most of her time moaning.
    I also find the constant footnotes, referencing and filling in of back stories distracting and irritating as I often feel like as a reader were just not getting to the point.

    All in all feeling very dissatisfied with this read