Liza Dalby’s The Tale of Murasaki

Title: The Tale of Murasaki
Author: Liza Dalby
Publisher: Anchor
Published Date: 21st August 2001
Page Count: 448
ISBN: 978- 0385497954
Price: $16.95
Reviewer: Gwendoline SK Terry (6 December 2019)

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.

Review – may contain spoilers!
The Tale of Murasaki is a fictional biography of eleventh century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, author of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, and member of the Heian court at Miyako (present-day Kyoto).

The Tale of Murasaki is exquisite. Every paragraph conveys such vivid imagery, it’s almost as though you’re watching the tale unfold rather than reading it. Included in this fabulous novel are excerpts from Murasaki’s thousand-year-old diary, including practically all the waka from Murasaki’s poem collection – both in Japanese and with the English translation. The novel flows so well and so logically, it is difficult to deduce what is historically based and what is the author’s invention.

Dalby offers the reader a gorgeously vivid and detailed portrait of Murasaki, an intelligent and complex woman with a somewhat dour view on the world. She gives us stunning insight to the Heian period and the struggles of intellectual women of this era. Steeped in history, from religion to politics of the time, the reader is absorbed into Murasaki’s world. Throughout the novel, Dalby offers interesting facts and tidbits as footnotes, a unique and enjoyable addition to a historical fiction novel.

Before the story begins, there are two beautiful maps, Murasaki’s Japan and the Journey to Echizen, plus a detailed layout of Heian-kyō in the eleventh century. I love these additions to the novel, especially the layout – those are the streets Murasaki walked, the mansions she lived in during her imperial service, the great palace of the emperor and empress.

As sumptuous and detailed as this novel is, I must admit when Murasaki becomes a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi, some of her descriptions of the flowers and fabrics become repetitive, but I do not count this against the novel. Indeed, court life is tedious for the unhappy Murasaki, her growing awareness mirrored in the stories of Genji. Had she come when she was much younger, she would’ve been much better suited to court life, as Murasaki considers in the book – and her repetitions of the beautiful gardens and fabrics prove to be some of the few things that entertain her there. Dalby masterfully captured Murasaki’s mindset throughout the entire novel.

In a beautiful full circle, the Tale of Murasaki begins and ends with a letter from Murasaki’s daughter, Katako, to her own daughter, born after Murasaki’s death. Also included as an epilogue in the novel is the lost last chapter of Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. I have never read the Tale of Genji, but after reading that chapter, I immediately bought the book.

All in all, I would recommend this novel if you have an interest in Japanese history. It’s beautiful, detailed and enthralling – not to mention, educational, too. Dalby breathed life into the eleventh century author, a gorgeous fictional-biography that I think even Murasaki herself would enjoy.