Australian journalist Blensdorf, now England-based, debuts with an overwrought melodrama about the beleaguered life and long identity crisis of a woman half-Japanese and half-American.
So much could have been so wonderful if our narrator’s imaginative and likable American father hadn’t died in New York “one evening as a stolen car shot out of the darkness.” His death leaves the little girl and her modest Japanese mother at the mercy of his parents: the grandfather is nice enough, but the grandmother is a crushing snob who scorns the mother and wants only to Americanize the girl a.s.a.p. Result: the two flee back to Tokyo to live with “my mother’s elder brother.” So much could have been so wonderful if only the unmarried uncle weren’t an intolerable, cruel, perverted male-supremacist brute (he’s obsessed by samurai swords) who drives his sister to suicide, whereafter he does something equally unspeakable to our poor girl narrator. And so much could have been so wonderful if only the narrator’s new husband hadn’t turned out to be—well, a brute and slug. Her shameful divorce alienates her enraged uncle forever—but our narrator inherits a little incense shop and, in its quiet upstairs room, sits behind a screen and listens to the sad stories of her male “clients,” then gives such spoken comfort and advice as she can. (The real Sei Shonagon was a courtier in the Heian period who, when she was given paper as a gift, used it to write The Pillow Book, circa a.d.1000). What at last seems true happiness—with the love of French photographer Alain—ends up, thanks again to brute villainy, to be something worse than any of the deaths, suicides, rapes, or divorces so far.
Meditations and mini-essays about the delights and drawbacks of all things Japanese are interwoven throughout, providing much ethnic and historic and cultural information. But, as fiction, Voices is slow going, the melodrama unrelieved (and unbelievable), the message a toss-up between the heavy-handed and the saccharine.