Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction - at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful - and completely unforgettable.
Nine-year-old Chiyo is a poor fisherman's daughter living in the remote Japanese village of Yoroido. Her fate is sealed one summer day when she meets shifty Mr. Tanaka Ichiro, who sells Chiyo and her sister into slavery.
And so begins Arthur Golden's epic story of Sayuri, the geisha and woman Chiyo becomes. Using fiction, Golden explores the secret lives of geisha in a time and world that is long forgotten, but remains etched in memory through his words. A scholar of Japanese art and history, Golden spent ten years researching every piece of geisha culture, mainly relying on the accounts of real life geisha Mineko Iwasaki (who may arguably be the face behind Sayuri).
Ripped from her home, Chiyo is placed under the supervision of cruel Granny and scrupulous Mother, the owners of the Nitta okiya (a famous geisha house). Through her unusual blue-gray eyes, we see every back street, every teahouse, and every temple of Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. Chiyo's voice is immature and often naïve, and yet her simple observances touch on more truths than exaggerations.
At first, Chiyo is under the impression that Mr. Tanaka has come to adopt her and her sister to bring them out of poverty; when the truth finally sets in, she tries to escape the life that has already been decided for her.
But attempts to leave are futile. With no money, no home, and a separation from her sister, Chiyo is forced to live in the Nitta okiya. Debts against her pile up, and she essentially becomes a maid to work them off. Hatsumomo, the geisha of the house and one of the most revered in her time, makes life further complicated for Chiyo when she takes an instant dislike to her.
It is a chance meeting with the Chairman that alters Chiyo's life. An act of kindness leads her to seize the opportunity to change her life. With a new resolve, she decides to become a geisha and meet the Chairman once more.
With the help of benevolent Mahema, another revered geisha and Hatsumomo's rival, Chiyo begins training. Hatsumomo, never one to be outdone, decides to take Pumpkin (another apprentice in the okiya) under her tutelage. Golden leaves no stone untouched as we learn about the art of dancing and entertaining, of kimono and make-up wearing, and even sake pouring. Through Golden's prose, the Japanese culture unfolds in touching, and occasionally comical, glimpses.
After two years of training, Chiyo is ready for her debut as Sayuri. Mahema takes it upon herself to make Sayuri's career as successful, if not more, than her own. Every night, Sayuri spends hours putting on layers of make-up and elaborate kimonos, and makes her way around the infamous teahouses of Gion, often just to spend an hour serving sake or entertaining the various patrons. Soon, she becomes one of the most popular apprentices of her time. It is at this point that Mahema decides that Sayuri is ready to take on a danna (essentially, become a mistress of a wealthy man). When the Chairman resurfaces, Sayuri is certain that he is her destiny. But, like so many years ago, what her heart wishes and what her fate is to be is entirely out of her control. Instead, Mahema chooses the Chairman's best friend as a suitable danna. He is deformed and abrasive, but Sayuri, crafty and cunning, wins his affections.
Now that Sayuri has found the Chairman, she cannot stop thinking about him. Certain that he doesn't recognize her, she tries to follow the path of the geisha, which warrants that business comes before matters of the heart. Caught in some horrible love triangle, Sayuri is forced to put her happiness aside to appease the only patriarchal society she's ever known.
Beautifully written, Memoirs of a Geisha is a love story, a historical chronicle, an ode to innocence lost. Through Sayuri, the reader is swept up in a sea of emotions - one moment laughing at her apt description of a rival's head shape (that would be Pumpkin), the next crying along with her as she loses her mizuage (virginity) to the highest bidder, whom she will probably never see again.
At times the novel is too conventional and maudlin, but at others it captivates and invites the reader to look through the eyes of a young girl who is forced to grow up too fast. Golden encapsulates the essence of geisha almost as poetically as the way we imagine Sayuri might glide across a room. C.Ho.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: out of 5