The Book of Loss

Written by Julith Jedamus
Review by Bethany Latham

This novel is presented in diary format, making it reminiscent of historical works such as Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Set during the Japanese Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD), it centers around a poet who is also lady-in-waiting to the empress. The unnamed narrator’s lover, Kanesuke, has been exiled for seducing the teenaged Vestal of Ise, daughter of the emperor. This is not the narrator’s only rival for Kanesuke’s affections; he is also engaged in an affair with Izumi, another lady-in-waiting and poet, and former friend of the narrator. Using the only weapon they have at their disposal—venomous words—the two women vent their jealousy by engaging in a vicious rumor war whose unforeseeable consequences ruin lives and topple governments.

This evocative novel is an engrossing study in jealousy, love, loss, and sacrifice. For a multitude of reasons, we are all unreliable narrators when it comes to the tale of our lives, and The Book of Loss’s narrator is no different: events are always reflected through the distorted bronze of her damaged mirror. The culture she invites us into, with its complex social rules, hierarchies, storytelling, and mysticism, is captivating. The prose can occasionally be over-extravagant, but it is convincing for the voice of the character from which it comes; transportive and sensuous, it easily conveys Japanese aestheticism, where everything from the scent and shade of paper to the unfurling of a cherry blossom is imbued with deeper meaning. The preoccupation with darkness and the claustrophobic setting of the women’s quarters at court give the novel a somewhat gothic feel, and though none of the characters are truly sympathetic, their lives and interactions are engrossing. Since the cultural references can be confusing to the uninitiated, a helpful cast of characters and glossary are included. Recommended.