Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

I read this on the recommendation of a friend, and have now myself recommended it to others. I mistakenly believed this book would be hard to follow given that I knew next to nothing about geishas and their lifestyles. However, the book is written in such a way that everything is explained to you in a non-patronising way and doesn’t detract from the action. Memoirs of a Geisha is a truly remarkable book, and I’ll definitely be watching the film at some point in the future off the back of my enjoyment of this novel.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young Japanese girl, who, as her mother is desperately ill and her father elderly is taken away and sold into Gion, a geisha district in Japan. To begin she is fearful and distraught at being removed from her family. However, she is a very intelligent and resourceful girl and realises the consequences could have been much worse, had she not been brought to Gion. She has been earmarked to be trained as a geisha, much to the disgust of the fully-fledged geisha living in their ‘okiya,’ Hatsumomo. She knows that young Chiyo, later Sayuri, is a threat to her and does everything she can to try and ruin the young girl’s chances. However, with the help of another well-known geisha and some external influences, Sayuri eventually becomes a geisha and is incredibly popular. This does not stop Hatsumomo’s hate campaign though, and the battle goes on for a long time until the evil Hatsumomo is forced to admit defeat.

The novel gives us the opportunity to watch Sayuri grow from a child into a beautiful young woman, and take in all the sights and sounds she is experiencing along the way – giving a fascinating glimpse into the world of the geisha. We see Sayuri use her beauty and wit to her advantage, and she manipulates the path of her destiny to lead her to a man she has always desired. It is difficult to say whether it is love Sayuri feels for the Chairman, but I don’t think this is through any fault of the author. I simply feel he was being accurate in not describing it as love because geisha are trained and expected to belong to the highest bidder, as opposed to falling in love and choosing who they spend their time with. It doesn’t make the character appear one-dimensional, as she experiences so many other thoughts and feelings throughout her life that we are desperate to see her happy and settled at some point in her life. You’ll definitely find yourself rooting for the little girl from the fishing village as she in thrown into a hard and hectic life where she is paid to entertain, and her virginity is sold to the highest bidder.

Although this book is fictional, it describes so well the customs and cultures of Japan and geisha, and the scandals, that you feel as though you’re reading a fascinating autobiography. I felt as though I was learning about the culture and habits as well as taking in a beautiful story. I heartily recommend this – despite the number of characters and complexity of their names and place names, you won’t get lost. The author takes you by the hand and leads you on a fascinating journey, one that you will be reluctant to bring to an end. Excellent.

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