First-novelist Jedamus chronicles courtly infighting in tenth-century Japan.
As depicted in this fictitious diary, life is dreary for ladies-in-waiting at the Heian Emperor’s court. They spend their days detangling their floor-length hair, choosing silks for their voluminous robes, composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, applying lead-based products to their faces and teeth and gossiping about their fellow courtiers. Since they can’t be in the presence of men unless concealed by a screen, one wonders how they flirt, much less tryst with their lovers. Somehow, they manage, igniting rivalry between the unnamed narrator and Izumi, a poet, over Heian Japan’s own Don Juan, Kanesuke. As if sowing discord between two former best friends wasn’t enough, Kanesuke seduced the Vestal of Ise, the Emperor’s favorite daughter, causing her to be recalled from her post as resident virgin at a shrine. For this he’s earned banishment to a remote rocky shore, but he continues to foment female unrest with artfully presented missives delivered by courier. The narrator, resentful of the more effusive letters lovelier Izumi receives, spreads a false rumor about Kanesuke and the vestal’s half-sister Sadako, causing Sadako’s disgrace. Hostilities escalate as Izumi exposes the narrator’s calumny and the latter seeks solace with a younger man, I Ching practitioner Masato. The narrator finds she is pregnant by Masato, but children are an untenable encumbrance to a court lady; she already has a son being raised elsewhere. Political instability and pestilence disrupt court indolence. Crown Prince Reizei dies of smallpox. Kanesuke’s return from exile is imminent when Izumi learns to her horror that he has fallen ill. Jedamus’s prose, like a prolonged haiku, captures the Japanese obsession with subtle natural detail and, except for odd Western borrowings like “vestal,” “archbishop” and “rosary,” serves historical verisimilitude well. Sybaritic indulgence and intrigue dominate until the diary’s disordered end signals abrupt flight. Be advised to read the prologue last.
A finely wrought depiction of turbulence, perhaps too faithfully reflecting the enervating pace of these privileged lives.