The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel

( 8 )

Overview

The Tale of Murasaki is an elegant and brilliantly authentic historical novel by the author of Geisha and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha.

In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. In The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby has created a breathtaking fictionalized narrative of the life of this timeless poet–a lonely girl who becomes such a compelling storyteller...

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Tale of Murasaki: A Novel

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Overview

The Tale of Murasaki is an elegant and brilliantly authentic historical novel by the author of Geisha and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha.

In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. In The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby has created a breathtaking fictionalized narrative of the life of this timeless poet–a lonely girl who becomes such a compelling storyteller that she is invited to regale the empress with her tales. The Tale of Murasaki is the story of an enchanting time and an exotic place. Whether writing about mystical rice fields in the rainy mountains or the politics and intrigue of the royal court, Dalby breathes astonishing life into ancient Japan.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Luscious, lush and languorously elegant.... You feel you are breathing the air of 11th-century Japan.”
--USA Today

“Liza Dalby is not just a remarkable scholar of Japan--she is a keen storyteller.”
--Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“An impressive spectacle.... Demands to be savored and appreciated.”
--San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

“An amazing feat.... Anyone already an enthusiast either of [The Tale of] Genji or of Arthur Golden’s wonderful Memoirs of a Geisha will already be running to the bookstore for this book.... A wonderful accomplishment.”--Newsday

“Exquisite and poetic.... A leisurely, rich novel told in a dreamy style.... Elegant.”
--The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

“Captivating.... The Tale of Murasaki gets the big things right, including, indispensably, the dark undercurrent of sadness running below the bright, embroidered surface.... All this, and much more, rings so true to the created milieu of Genji that one is inclined to indulge Dalby in all she has dreamed or imagined.”
--The Washington Post Book World

“Authentic.... Re-creates the life of an 11th-century Scheherazade.”
--Entertainment Weekly

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This second novel is a literary reconstruction of the sensibilities, manners, fashions, and preoccupations of 11th-century Japan - from the consultant for the upcoming film, Memoirs of a Geisha.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perfectly capturing the sensual mood of its model, The Tale of Genji, this imagined memoir of Murasaki Shikibu--the author of the 11th-century Japanese masterpiece heralded as the world's first novel--sensitively renders Murasaki's inner life and her times in Miyako (ancient Kyoto). Posed as a series of reminiscences discovered after Murasaki's death by her grown daughter, Katako, the novel reveals the mind of a writer who believed that she could "shape reality by... writing." The young Murasaki dreams of serving as a lady-in-waiting at the empress's court, but her father is a humble scholar, a position that doesn't merit such honors for his children. Instead, she is betrothed to Nobutaka, a relative and family friend. Murasaki resists this match, as Nobutaka is much older, and with her girlhood friend she has invented an ideal, "imaginary lover," the shining Prince Genji. When Murasaki's family is transferred to the distant province of Echizen, she falls in love with a Chinese ambassador's son. But the pair are separated, and Murasaki finally accedes to marriage to Nobutaka. To her surprise, she enjoys a few years of quietude and continues writing the Genji stories, which have begun to circulate and win appreciation. Later, she is summoned to serve at court, as the regent wants "those who read the tales of Genji in the future to know they were inspired by [his] glorious reign." The book focuses on Murasaki's observations, rather than on national events, and the story moves at a leisurely pace, best enjoyed for its rich, evocative descriptions--like that of the fascinating practice of communicating via brief poems. The real Murasaki's poems are included throughout, illuminating Dalby's sensitive, well-researched portrayal of the Heian-period novelist, who realizes poignantly that "literary skill will get you noticed... but it won't make you happy." Author tour; rights sold in England, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain and Japan. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
Liza Dalby, who first fell in love with Japan during a high-school exchange year, became the only Westerner to make music on her shamisen as a geisha, a professional entertainer. She calls her scholarly story of the aesthetic lives in the 11th-century Japanese court a kind of "literary archaeology" and bases her "poetic diary" on Lady Murasaki's famed Tale of Genji. Almost all the Murasaki waka (short verse) and a large part of the ancient diary are arranged expertly according to the many and specific seasonals of the Chinese calendar. There are a few fairly shocking sensibilities, but they are in appropriate context. Readers who love history and literature, fashion and romance, will find themselves savoring this "dream world of palaces and gardens." Dalby has retraced, both in writing and throughout Japan, the wondrous journey of the woman whose stories were read before the Emperor during her lifetime, a thousand years ago. "Lightning," the story that concludes the volume, is expert and satisfying. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Anchor, 426p. maps., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Maureen K. Griffin; Researcher, Everett, MA SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Library Journal
Dalby made her mark with her exploration of the geisha in modern Japan (Geisha, 1983), an anthropological study that balanced sensitivity to and knowledge of her subject. (It also was a key resource for Arthur Golden's best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha.) These skills have not failed her in her first novel. The Tale of Murasaki is the fictional memoir of Murasaki Shikibu, the 11th-century author of The Tale of Genji, considered to be the world's first novel. Dalby paints a rich picture of life in medieval Japan among royalty and scholars. In the foreground are Murasaki's relationships with her kin, husband, women friends, and title character, the Shining Prince Genji. She struggles to make him irresistible yet not perfect, and the articulation of Genji mirrors her articulation of herself. In the background are descriptions of the seasons, clothing, rituals, intrigue, literature, and other mundane details of the Heian period. Never just decoration, these details inspire Murasaki to feel, think, and write. In sophisticated and evocative prose, Dalby creates a woman who is strong, admirable, enviable, and even imperfect. Recommended for all libraries.--Elizabeth C. Stewart, Portland, ME Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
YA-A fictional biography of Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, the most famous tale in Japanese literature. As children, Murasaki and a friend made up stories about an imaginary lover, Genji. Fascinated by her father's descriptions of life at court, she later began writing romantic tales centered around the "shining prince.'' The young woman has intimate relationships with both women and men, but marries her father's choice, an older gentleman of means. She is widowed soon after the birth of their daughter. Her fame as a storyteller and her friendship with the regent's daughter lead to her appointment as lady-in-waiting to the empress; she is also a courtesan, as is expected of those serving in the imperial household. After a number of years at court, with her daughter established as a lady-in-waiting, the writer withdraws to a mountain retreat and lives the life of a Buddhist nun. The novel is based on the existing fragments of Shikibu's diary and on her poetry, written in a style similar to haiku, which is included in the text in both English and Japanese. In this beautifully written tale, both Murasaki and Genji are painted in bold brush strokes yet with revealing detail. Sophisticated readers, especially those interested in Japanese history, will be caught up in the story and fascinated by the depiction of the rich culture of 11th-century Japan.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Janice P. Nimura
The setting is the 11th century, Japan's Heian period, when the modern city of Kyoto was the imperial capital of Miyako, and a tiny, complex society of courtiers adhered to an exquisitely choreographed round of ceremony, costume and poetry. It is the world immortalized in The Tale of Genji, touted in college survey courses as history's first novel and written by Murasaki Shikibu, a court lady about whom little is known. This makes her the perfect candidate to star in a historical novel, and Dalby, armed with a thorough grasp of the period, has seized the opportunity. Stitched together from the Genji stories as well as Murasaki's diary fragments and collected poems, her quiet, dignified voice guides us behind the strategically placed screens and carefully oblique allusions of the imperial world ''above the clouds.''
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Dalby, an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture (Geisha, 1983), has used her professional background and eye for detail to create her debut fiction: the "autobiography" of the woman who wrote the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. Lady Murasaki Shikibu was by all accounts an unconventional figure in 11th-century Japan. Filled with imagination and curiosity, she despised the constraints placed on the women of her time. She escaped by creating a dashing, romantic figure, Prince Genji, and spinning tales of his escapades to amuse herself, her friends, and her family. The stories soon became the talk of the Heian court, and its regent, Michinaga, implored Murasaki to join that court as his unofficial scribe. Dalby, who spent ten years researching her story in order to accurately reconstruct the period, captures every nuance of court life, from wonderful descriptions of the courtiers' dress to the poetic conversation (waka) they engaged in. Meanwhile, she seamlessly incorporates Murasaki's actual poetry and dialogue throughout the text as a foundation for her own compelling portrait of Japan's most famous author. Dalby's style faithfully mimics that of the original Genji, yet the result never seems stilted or outdated. A surprisingly modern portrait that will strike a chord with contemporary readers, even as it effortlessly transports them to Murasaki's uniquely exotic world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385497954
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/21/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 630,278
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Author ofGeisha and Kimono and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha, Liza Dalby is a consultant for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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Read an Excerpt


Katako's Letter
I was pregnant with you when my mother died, but my condition was far from normal. I was often overwhelmed by waves of nausea. The only thing that held them at bay was a fresh citron. Scratching the bumpy yellow yuzu skin released a tiny vapor of citrus essence to inhale and quell my rising gorge. But most of the time I simply surrendered to queasy lassitude. I had to tuck emergency drafts of yuzu and tangerine peel in my sleeves to get through my mother's funeral. She had been living in seclusion for some time. Some people, on hearing of her death, were surprised that she had still been alive.
Your grandmother was well known as the lady who wrote the Tale of Genji. That novel of romance and poignant observation appeared like a bright full moon floating out of a dark sky. No one had read anything like it before. It brought my mother fame and notoriety in her day. Still, I was surprised at the crowd that gathered for her final rites. At least a dozen ladies endured the inconvenient all-day trip to Ishiyama Temple. They must have been Genji readers who preferred the life they found in my mother's stories to their own dull husbands or difficult situations.
I'm sure my mother became a recluse in order to disentangle herself from Genji. The work had come to envelop her life. Yet Genji was also her child. She had created and nurtured it, but then, as children do, it grew up and eventually slipped from her control. I was a much more compliant child than the book. I never gave her as much cause for concern as did Genji.
Perhaps because people were infatuated with the heroine of her novel, they confused my mother with that character. She was nicknamed Murasaki when she entered Her Majesty's service. Readers of the tale seemed to think they knew her because they knew Genji's Murasaki. I think my mother grew tired of the letters and visits from people of all ranks, including imperial personages, whom, of course, she could not ignore. It had gotten to the point where readers became so involved with her characters that they importuned my mother to create particular scenes to satisfy their imaginations. They came to expect things of Genji, and my mother grew equally tired, I'm convinced, of meeting their expectations and thwarting them.
She had even been invited to join the empress's entourage because of Genji. It must have seemed a miracle to her, a bookish widow, to have been lifted out of obscurity into the conspicuous brilliance of that imperial salon. Genji writing brought her to the attention of the regent Michinaga, the man who controlled emperors and ruled the country in fact if not in name. Whatever my mother's relationship to Michinaga may have been, Genji was largely responsible.
One bears children and eventually launches them into society, praying they will make a favorable impression, attain a suitable status, or at least not be an embarrassment. Perhaps one has taught them something that will give them the strength to suffer the karma they were born with. Yet eventually children will do as they will. The influence of previous existence will play out in ways we cannot possibly know. As a parent, one accepts this. But a work of fiction is a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own.
Perhaps it's not so different from a flesh-and-blood child, after all.
The Genji tale was like an elder brother to me from the time I was born. It was always taking up my mother's time, demanding her attention like any selfish boy. It never went away or lessened its demand. As jealous as I was when I was young, eventually I, too, fell under Genji's spell.
We did not meet often during the years my mother lived as a nun. My own career at court was developing moderately well, and I was then under the protection of Counselor Kanetaka, a nephew of Regent Michinaga. It was his child--you--I carried at the time of Murasaki's death.
I thought I should probably never marry. How was I to know the fated connections and promotions that were to come my way? I was not worried about my future, because my mother was not. She would not have abandoned me at sixteen unless she felt my prospects were secure.
The faint scent of cherry blossoms will always remind me of my mother's departing this world. As we left the sand-strewn funerary plain at dawn, we passed stands of blooming cherries in the morning fog. Then, as the sun warmed the earth and the fog melted away, a soft smell filled the air. No one thinks of sakura for its scent--it hasn't the strong honey odor of plum--but out in the countryside, in such masses, sakura seemed to have a subtle fragrance.
I was carrying the urn with Murasaki's ashes to take back to our family temple. My grandfather Tametoki should have been in charge, but, mortified at seventy-four to have outlived his children, he shrank from taking an official part in the ceremony. Shaking his gray head like one of the querulous macaque monkeys we saw on the mountain roads, my grandfather lamented the fortune of his continued good health as much as his daughter's death.
The following month I journeyed for the last time to my mother's retreat near Kiyomizu Temple to gather her things. I knew there would not be very much because she had already given away her musical instruments, her books, and--of course, long since--all of the fine silk clothing she had worn at court. There were some good padded winter robes, which I donated to the temple, as well as the sutras she had been copying in her graceful calligraphy. I managed to find the only things I wanted--her dark purple inkstone, a set of writing brushes, and a Chinese celadon brush rest in the form of five mountains. As I knelt at her low writing table, I noticed another bundle of papers, rolled tightly and wrapped in a scrap of chartreuse silk. Thinking these to be old letters she had kept for the paper on which to copy more sutras, I decided to take them with me for my own writing practice. Paper is not cheap, and I thought I might as well put it to the use my mother intended. The priest was disappointed. These people are always on the lookout for extra paper.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Katako describes her mother's fiction as "a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own" [p. 2]. And Murasaki agrees in her conclusion that she had been "deluded . . . into thinking I could shape reality by my writing. . . . Reality was neither the subject nor object of the tales, for Genji created his own reality"[pp. 39798]. Do Katako's and Murasaki's observations, in fact, describe what Dalby herself is doing in re-creating Murasaki's life and her world through the art of historical fiction? How is that different than writing the fictional The Tale of Genji?

2. Why does Dalby choose to begin the book with Katako's letter to her daughter? In what other ways does the theme of one person acting as a scribe in order to preserve the present for posterity run throughout the book? In what other instances, and in what manner, do people in Murasaki's world communicate on behalf of one another?

3. A novel is clearly not a "pile of poems with a fragile thread of story holding them together," as Murasaki, the young writer, learns [p. 34]. In Murasaki's experience, how does the process of writing a novel compare to composing poetry? What about to the other forms of written expression appearing in the novel, i.e., writing lists, "pillow books," diaries or "scribbling" to record current events? According to Murasaki, is there a hierarchy of written forms of expression?

4. Upon her entrance to court life, she finds "the sacred presence of the emperor and empress was overwhelming" [p. 248]. Does Murasaki discover, as Ruri had warned her, that, in fact, "life at court conceals a constant tension between ideas of how things are supposed to be and how they are" [p. 50]? Do Murasaki's views toward court change over her time of service? Is her advice to her daughter and her decision to prepare her for court service a surprise [pp. 35859]? In comparing herself to Genji's "pretend" son, Kaoru, who "understood the dissatisfaction of getting what you think you want" [p. 389], is Murasaki referring to her disappointment in court life? Are there other aspects of Murasaki's life that turned out differently than the way she anticipated?

5. Dalby often employs elaborate metaphors to describe the scenes before Murasaki. For example, she describes one of the many ceremonies following the prince's birth as follows: "The embroidery was all in silver, and the seams of our trains were outlined in silver thread stitched together so thickly it looked like braid. Silver foil was inlaid into patterns in the ribs of the fans. When everyone was assembled, it was like looking at snow-clad mountains by the light of a clear moon--almost blinding, as if the room had been hung with mirrors" [p. 320]. How does this striking visual image act as a metaphor to convey the intricate relationship between Murasaki and nature? What other literary devices does Dalby employ to convey the visual spectacle or to evoke mood? What images from the novel are most vivid for you?

6. In musing over Michinaga's opinions of the great poets of the time, Kinto and Kazan, Murasaki comments, "Father's most ancient texts on Chinese poetics . . . insist the origin of the poetic impulse must lie in nature rather than purposeful art. 'Insect carving' was how one scholar derided the overly crafted work of his contemporaries" [p. 261]. Does this distinction between "good" and "bad" poetry accurately capture the aesthetic so highly esteemed in Murasaki's Japan?

7. Observing the farmers in the provinces practice their religious rituals, Murasaki wonders, "Could it be that even the royal court followed customs that originated in the sacred mud of the rice paddies?" [p. 147]. What other events or descriptions does Dalby use to illustrate how life "above the clouds" is different from "real life"--below the clouds?

8. Katako writes that the religious leader Genshin "preached the way for all souls, even women, to be saved directly by the mercy of Amida Buddha" [p. 400]. The assumption behind this statement, and eleventh-century Buddhist culture, is that a woman's soul is usually not worthy of salvation, by virtue of her gender. How else does Dalby capture this inferior, at times almost nonexistent, status of women in eleventh-century Japan? What influence on society do the women in The Tale of Murasaki have, if any?

9. What examples of the sexual mores of the time can you glean from the novel? How would you compare and contrast these practices, as portrayed in The Tale of Murasaki, to those of contemporary Western society?

10. Compare and contrast Murasaki's relationships with women to her relationships with men. Which are more nurturing emotionally? Intellectually? Which better prepare her for society? How do each of her relationships help her shape the development of Genji's character? Does Murasaki learn to like men--or does she just accept that, "in the end, I suppose we always have to take it" [p. 327]?

11. According to The New York Times review of The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby invented Murasaki's relationship with Ming-gwok in order to "broaden her horizons and introduce her to love."* Do you agree that this was Dalby's purpose?

12. If you have not read The Tale of Genji, how would you imagine his character based upon The Tale of Murasaki? Is he Murasaki's "Shining Prince" or her alter ego? An imaginary friend or ideal lover? How does Genji reflect Michinaga's character? What are his strengths and weaknesses [see pp. 151, 29496, 388]? At what points do Murasaki's own experiences coincide with or diverge from those of Genji? What is her relationship with him, and how does it change over the course of the novel?

13. Murasaki's father reacts to Genji's infatuation with Yugao by asking: "'Why would a man like Genji neglect a lady of beauty and refinement for this tramp?'" And Murasaki thinks, "I had to smile. Father really was different from ordinary men, and I loved him for it" [p. 231]. What examples can you find of Tametoki being in fact "different" from the other men in Murasaki's life? In what ways is he the same? Is he admirable or foolish or both?

14. How are the Chinese compared and contrasted with the Japanese in the novel? For example, Murasaki is "struck by the different way Chinese and Japanese view [seasonal changes]. . . . The Chinese regarded fireflies as born from fallen vegetation which rots in the humid heat, yet there was no emotion in that observation" [p. 153]. And later, she is "humbled" when Ming-gwok tells her that "the Chinese emperor had an entire bureau of learned men devoted to studying the stars. . . . We Japanese have no idea of these things" [p. 164]. Why do you think that Dalby might have included these and other comparisons between the two races in her novel?

15. What is the significance of Dalby's creating "The Lost Last Chapter of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji" as the epilogue for her novel? Is Ukifune supposed to be symbolic of Murasaki in her last years--afflicted by blindness that finally brings her peace? Is there a difference in style between the last chapter and the rest of the novel?

16. When the serving ladies mock Murasaki for reading Chinese books she rather brashly thinks, "Yes, that's what is always said, but I've never heard of anyone living longer simply because of observing such prohibitions!" [p. 356]. Is Murasaki a woman ahead of her times, or very much a product of her times? Is she rebellious in other aspects of her life?

17. Dalby writes in the Acknowledgments that she "reverse-engineered" The The Tale of Genji into her novel. How does she do this? How is the creative- writing process explored in the novel? Is The Tale of Murasaki primarily a novel about the act of writing?

18. Like Murasaki, Dalby includes a cast of characters at the beginning of The Tale of Murasaki. Murasaki writes of her characters: "Originally I had thought of Genji as the center of this universe of women. Later, as the extended mansion took shape in my mind, I realized that the ladies themselves were of far more interest to me" [p. 199]. Does Murasaki ever become less than the central character in Dalby's novel? How does Dalby develop the other characters in the novel? Are they all secondary to Murasaki, important only in as much as they affect Murasaki, or can any stand on their own?

19. How do the many examples of the man-made order (court ranking, calendar, the Chinese calendar's Monthly Ordinance, the composed garden, the number of layers of the kimonos) enable eleventh-century Japanese society to survive and flourish in the face of the harshness and unpredictability of nature? How is Murasaki's life shaped by these two opposing forces?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2008

    Wonderful

    Everytime I read this book I get so lost in it. It gets shorter everytime I pick it up. 'Some books just aren't long enough.' I had the pleasure of meeting Liza Dalby once. She is a great lady with extensive understanding of what it truly is to be in that life of courtesans and Geisha. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2009

    THE MOST BORING BOOK I'VE EVER READ

    Normally I love to read and can sit through any book, no matter how slow it is theres always SOMETHING. But this book was a chore to read. I was very interested because I had loved Memoirs of a Geisha but nothing happens in this book. Its full or random uninteresting little poems and I had to force myself to finish it. I have never been so disappointed by a book before in my life and for people that want some kind of plot or storyline this book is not for you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2002

    The tale of Murasaki

    This was not a particularly good book - in fact I struggled to keep reading it! I wouldn't really recommend it. There is some interesting information but the story was a bit dry and uneventful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2002

    beautiful story

    this book helped me heighten the interest in not only the heian culture but all general interest in the histories and cultures of various countries. it does a great job showing the scene to the reader. very beautifully written, poetic, and elegant.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2001

    Subtly Beautiful

    This book is book is subtle, and the conflict is there if one knows how to sense the intense emotion under the refined surface. The restraint of expression is, of course, intentional, and Liza Dalby has accomplished it beautifully. The personal conflict goes beyond just Murasaki wondering what to write her next poem about. The conflict is of a young woman who does not quite fit the mold of what a woman should be in tenth century Japan. Dalby beautifully and subtly expresses Murasaki's sensibilities, as shaped by her culture, upbringing, and personality. Writers like myself will relate Murasaki's thoughts about writing her Genji tales.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2000

    Interesting but not the greatest story.

    This book is exclusively for the Japanese enthusiast. There are some very interesting facts disclosed in the novel but they could easily be summed up in one or two chapters. The author actually goes into too much detail at some points by describing the multiple colors of every single person's robes. Personally, I am not that interested in the percentage of different ingredients that go into making incense. The real problem that I had with the book was the story. There is no excitement, no climax. The fact that the story is losely based on some facts about Murasaki would give, I believe, some room for some type of excitement. Murasaki's biggest dilema is what to say in her next poem. I found myself struggling through the book counting the pages. I have not read the Tales of Genji. I do think that if I had read it before I read this book it might have been more interesting.

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    Posted January 2, 2011

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    Posted March 31, 2011

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    Posted June 23, 2011

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