For this week’s review I read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which follows a young woman from a fishermen’s village to Kyoto through her training as a Geisha in 1930s Japan. The story spans a little over two decades and is told from the perspective of our narrator as she is in her late 60s.
Sayuri’s narrative is vivid, alive and honest… From her adoration of Mr. Tanaka who really doesn’t care much for the girls beyond a money investment to her fear for her mother who is sick. The terror of being sold to become a geisha and not knowing what may have happened to her sister, the feeling of envy because she’s stuck being a maid while her housemate gets to become a potentially successful geisha. And the success; the sacrifices it means even if it’s the way to security. The awe she feels when she sees a kimono tied for the first time, her first experience as an apprentice geisha, her deflowering… Everything feels real in many ways. It’s engaging and in fact I devoured the book.
It may be fictional but it opens a window on a culture and a way of life that is so completely alien to Western civilization. It’s filled with customs and practices, which are both fascinating and scary in some ways. The entire concept of geisha is different than what I imagined it was; mostly one imagines that they’re merely high end prostitutes, which Sayuri’s story tells us they’re not, it’s more than that. In fact, they rarely have actual sexual encounters and any trifling relationship with someone not accepted by the Head of the okiya (house for geishas) can lead to banishment and failure.
The book is rich with culture, description helping us discover Japanese society and the spheres in which the geishas evolve, how their status defines them. But it’s also a wealth of little details about the characters, their stories, their quirks and habits, their qualities and faults that make the narrative alive and engaging. The description of the advantages the okiya manages to maintain during the beginning of World War Two thanks to the patronage of Sayuri by an army general already gives us a glimpse of what may happen when that support is gone. That’s a personal and individual memory of war, which is always interesting.
I’ve found Japan to be a fascinating culture; when we went to Tokyo 9 years ago I was amazed by the wealth of the country. It’s one that marries past, present and future. But I can’t say I know it well. Through this book, while it’s fictional, I’ve discovered a bit more of the Japanese mindset and that in itself makes it worth a read.
It’ll definitely stay in my bookshelves for a later re-read. Have you read Memoirs of a Geisha?
What did you think of it?
I look forward to reading your comments.