Arthur Golden, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Behrouz Boochani, Book lists, Chloe Hooper, John McGahern, Sayo Masuda, Thea Astley

Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

1001 books, Arthur Golden, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden


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 DieWell, 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.

Japanese history

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.