Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 497 pages; 2005.
Remember that project I set myself at the start of the year, the one in which I read at least a dozen books from my TBR that are listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Well, this is book four (I’m woefully behind) — and what a mixed bag it turned out to be.
First published in 1997, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha seems to be one of those novels that everyone has read. It has even been turned into a Hollywood film. For some inexplicable reason, both have passed me by.
Written as a fictional memoir (including a fictional “translator’s note” at the beginning), the book tells the extraordinary story of one woman’s life as a geisha.
Sold into slavery
Chiyo, a pretty grey-eyed child, is born into an impoverished fishing family living in a village on the coast of the Sea of Japan. But as her mother lays dying, her aged father sells nine-year-old Chiyo and her older sister to a man with connections to the top geisha houses in the Gion district of Tokyo.
The sisters are separated, and Chiyo — now renamed Sayuri — must learn to adjust to a new, often cruel, way of life as a young slave in a geisha house.
The book follows her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of Japan’s most celebrated geishas.
Sayuri’s story spans 25 years — from 1929 to a few years after the end of the Second World War — and provides a fascinating glimpse, not only of the secret world of the geisha, but of Japan’s history during that era.
Boxall describes it as an important book for its “glimpses into a way of life that has all but disappeared. It also provides a disturbing view of the place of women in Japanese society and culture”.
And I have to concur — Memoirs of a Geisha shows the reader how these women were exploited and degraded, but it shies away from going into too much sordid detail. It also shows how these women complied with a version of womanhood that many men expected — they were to be pretty, enchanting, entertaining and erotic, but they were not to be independent or to live lives of their own. But by the same token, successful geisha were well looked after and enjoyed a comfortable existence.
An engaging voice
I initially fell in love with this book. I enjoyed learning about the rules and rituals of life as an apprentice geisha and was mesmerised by the narrator’s engaging voice. It is testament to Golden’s skill as an author that he is able to pull off such an authentic female voice — and to do it with so much empathy and without casting judgement or aspersions.
But as the story wore on I began to tire of its repetitive nature. While Golden provides some narrative tension in the form of petty rivalries between certain geisha — the geisha world is highly competitive — there’s only so much squabbling, trickery and cruel gamesmanship I can take. Dare I confess that almost 500 pages of it is far too much?
Perhaps because I had already read a real memoir of a geisha’s life — Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha — it felt like I’d read this story before. But on the whole, this is an intimate account of a secretive way of life. Not only does it hone in on historical and cultural truths, it is an epic human story about surviving against the odds.