WELCOME TO HELL. That is, Tokyo as portrayed in My Name Is Sei Shonagon (Chatto & Windus, $156), Jan Blensdorf's debut novel. The main demon in the book is work. A salaryman drives himself so hard he and only realises a season is changing when he sees it mentioned on television. To up his output, he considers keeping a rolled-up futon under his desk so he can sleep over during the week. Every Friday night, to release tension, he habitually drinks himself senseless in Tokyo's nightlife district of Roppongi. Other stressed citizens who want to black out permanently jump beneath subway trains. This solution becomes so popular that the authorities consider installing mirrors on the tracks so that would-be corpses catch sight of their own reflections and think twice before taking the plunge. Against this backdrop of wretchedness, slipping in and out of consciousness on a hospital bed, Blensdorf's narrator, Sei Shonagon, casts her mind back over her life. The key events are the accidental death of her American father, a harsh, traditional upbringing at the hands of her uncle and a disastrous marriage, all this alleviated by her career as a kind of spiritual counsellor. Operating under the auspices of a Tokyo incense shop she would solace embattled salarymen and lonely wives who strangely seemed to take her name for granted. The name Sei Shonagon also belongs to a historical figure who lived at the court of the Japanese empress in the 10th century and composed Makura no soshi [the pillow book] of meditations, which offered a glimpse of court intrigue. Why the allusion? Perched on a bar stool in Soho in London's West End, Blensdorf says, by way of an explanation, she was absolutely 'bowled over' by the Heian era (794-1185) the pillow book describes, because it was peaceful and accorded women great liberty. While the men went about their affairs of state, 'thinking themselves the important members of this world', the women were allowed to do what they pleased. Blensdorf says Japanese women at that time may have possessed more freedom than they do today. But the overlap between growing female emancipation now and freedom then was the inspiration for the book, which she talks about volubly but edgily. In fact, Blensdorf, who declines to give her age, seems terrified that she might make an observation she will later regret. She speaks feverishly, perspiring like someone under police interrogation, her blue eyes gleaming, her hands restless. At one point she actually karate chops the spoon that came with her cappuccino. Clasping her hand over her mouth in horror, she apologises then, thinking fast, says in mock narration: 'The writer emphasised.' Blensdorf's wanted to write since childhood. During her teens, however, she almost abandoned the idea 'because I felt that what I was looking at and what I was putting down might be just too ruthless and might hurt people'. Because she was so worried she might upset someone, she stuffed the poems she wrote in a drawer and pursued her second love, art. After art college, she managed Melbourne's Steven Gallery, produced a children's book, Where Stars Grow (Oxford University Press) in 1986, and wrote an arts column for The Age newspaper. This sounds like a solid grounding. But the Australian, who lives in the outer London suburb of Watford, says that her background is all about travelling. My Name Is Sei Shonagon emerged from the time she spent in Japan between 1998 and 2000. First, she and her German sculptor husband Peter went to Kyoto because they saw it as the 'cultural capital'. They then headed for Tokyo, which struck her as brasher yet full of fascinating contrasts. 'You go out in the morning and simply don't know what you are going to find,' she says. 'One minute you are in the heart of a modern city with glass-fronted buildings everywhere. You turn a corner: there is a little wooden shrine, a tree, mothers and children, birds in the trees.' Blensdorf decided to explore the city of contrasts in words because, she says, she felt compelled. She had assumed the city would feel like just another foreign capital, but was astonished at her inability to come to grips with it. At times, the Japanese would behave as if the couple were 'aliens'. Gingerly, Blensdorf elaborates: 'You notice things on trains sometimes - people sometimes react negatively towards western women.' She expresses misgivings about Japanese men, whom she describes as serious early in life and 'very career-focused'. She also implies they have no time for adult women, saying that their 'optimum age' is their teens. Once they themselves reach their late 20s they supposedly think: 'I'm pretty over the hill now and that's it.' She adds that the situation is changing 'because Japanese women are insisting on a change, and they are not settling for marriage the way they once were. But there is still [a tendency] to extend that period of adolescence and giggling'. She sums up the lingeringsubmission as: 'I'm no threat to the men who are the real movers and shakers in this society.' In contrast, Blensdorf's fictional heroine is a fairly formidable character who divorces her husband and could be seen as a symbol of emancipation. Her cross-temporal identity can feel rather like intellectual baggage. All the same, the novel contains some unforgettably punchy, Eminem-like passages that lay bare the agony in the Japanese psyche. The Roppongi hard-drinker whose wife refused to understand his habit blames Sex And The City and tries to control his emotions. 'But the sense of pointlessness, of rage at the stupidity of his one finite disappearing life overwhelmed him sometimes, usually just when he needed to connect with another human being. He couldn't help yelling now and again.' The suffering of the salarymen makes bracing reading. Blensdorf nonetheless claims she loves the country they inhabit. She adds that returning to the west only drove home all the charms of Japan. She mentions futons, fans and food such as pan-fried dumplings and skewered chicken. She pinpoints another underlying quality that offsets the furious obsession with work - 'the innate, very civilised way in which people relate to each other'. Apparently calmed by the thought, with a smile on her lips and a lilt in her voice, she praises the courtesy and gentleness.