By Vanessa V. Friedman
Updated July 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The debut novel The Tale of Murasaki — by Liza Dalby, an anthropologist who is ”the only Westerner ever to become a geisha” — re-creates the life of an 11th-century Scheherazade, Murasaki Shikibu. Written as a diary-cum-memoir, the book begins with her mother’s death at 15 and follows her through marriage to a much older man, pregnancy, appointment at court, and final retreat to a monastery, all peppered with the wakas (haiku-like poems) of the real Murasaki. This adds an indisputably authentic touch but also points up an inherent problem: In sticking so carefully to the formal voice and strictures of a society where women didn’t even show their faces to men, Dalby imbues her character with an almost glacial remoteness, making the book’s appeal more intellectual than emotional. B+