Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Steph’s Rating: 3.5 stars Overall Rating 3.5 Stars
In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world. For the protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.
We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child's unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old. In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri will be schooled in music and dance, learn to apply the geisha's elaborate makeup, wear elaborate kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She will also acquire a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O'Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work - suspenseful, and utterly persuasive.
Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a girl named Chiyo, who is sold into the geisha business by her parents and taken to geisha central, the Gion district of Kyoto. She is separated from her sister and has no choice but to become a geisha herself if she wishes to survive. The training is not easy and pressures from her senior geishas and “buyers” don’t help relieve her burden. She is renamed Sayuri upon her “graduation” from her geisha studies, and now must spend her life entertaining the men who visit the Tea Houses of Gion and weaving her way through her deceptive rivals.
I was very torn about this book after reading it. I can understand why people think it is so controversial. On one side, I thought it was a literary sensation that brings you into the Japanese side of things during World War II. It does show the hardships of it’s citizens, both rich and poor, and the prejudices they receive. It also clears up some of the misconceptions of the geisha business: geisha’s are not prostitutes, contrary to popular western belief. No doubt it was quite well written; Arthur Golden’s writing flows and it really was able to draw me in. Since this book is, after all, a memoir, it is told from the perspective of a 60 year old Sayuri looking back into her life. There are lots of time skips, but Golden created smooth transitions. I found myself wanting to know what happened next in Sayuri’s life all the time, and I do admit that I stayed up late to finish this book.
On the other side though, I thought it was too americanized. Golden made the U.S. seem like some shining star in the midst of a dark world to all of our Japanese characters. The characters always praised America, and their “amazing cities”. Japan wasn’t as well off as America at the time this book takes place in since WWII was just finishing, but I didn’t like how Golden made America seem very arrogant. I really enjoyed this book while I was actually reading it, but once I stopped and really looked back on what I just read, I found it to be a little unrealistic too. Sayuri, a Japanese girl, has blue eyes (again, americanized), and somehow manages to fall in love with a man who is around 15 years older than her just because he comforted her when she was crying. In this book, we learn that geisha’s are not allowed to fall in love since it will hinder their work. There is an example of this, when one of Sayuri’s senior geisha falls in love, but is later found out and beaten because of it. It is painfully obvious that Sayuri loves this man, but I just found it irritating that no one else seemed to notice it. Golden just makes Sayuri “too special” for my tastes, because in reality, nobody would be as lucky as her.
Nonetheless, it was a great story while it lasted, and was quite thought-provoking throughout. I would say to put this on your to-read list, but you don’t have to scramble to a bookstore to read it right away. I think it is a book that people should read at least once.