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.
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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
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