Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1997)

This edition published by Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 2000.

READ: March-April 2007

I haven't seen the movie, but have wanted to read the book for a while. Initially, I was confused. I had always thought that Memoirs of a Geisha was a novel, but it began with a word from a translator who claimed to have translated Sayuri's words faithfully from the Japanese. I then realized that, of course, this was part of the novel, meant to give it an added aura of authenticity.

It's a wonderful book. Nitta Sayuri, a 9-year-old girl with unusual blue-grey eyes, is not born into the world of geishas, as most are, but is taken from her small village, after her mother dies and her father can no longer care for her, and sold to a geisha house in Kyoto. This is, effectively, akin to being sold into slavery. Many girls who trained to be geisha did not succeed, managing to incur substantial debts along the way, indebting them indefinitely to the geisha house to which they belong. For Sayuri, the story is, at least at first, much the same, but as she becomes more committed to the idea of becoming a geisha, things change.

A compelling read, I hated putting the book down at the end of a chapter, always wanting to read "just one more chapter". Though sometimes I lacked sympathy for Sayuri, I could not doubt that her story was a fairly common one in Gion, the famous geisha district of Kyoto. The book also spans a key point in modern Japanese history, from the late 1920s through the 1930s, to WWII and the post-war Occupation years. Arthur Golden apparently did a fair bit of research for the book, and as far as I know, his account of what it meant to be a geisha in those days is fairly accurate. I might see the movie now, to see how it compares.

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