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?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sayo Masuda, Setting, Vintage

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage East; 224 pages; 2006. Translated from the Japanese by G. G. Rowley.

This remarkable autobiography written by 32-year-old Sayo Masuda and first published in 1957 documents her struggle to seek out an ordinary life.

As a six-year-old, Sayo’s mother sent her to work as a nursemaid for some wealthy landowners who tied her up if she misbehaved, forced her to sleep on a “hempen sack stuffed with rags thrown into the corner of the storehouse” and only allowed her to eat scraps that they left under the kitchen sink.

Unable to go to school, unable to read, I had grown up as an abandoned dog does; and then, at the age of 12, I was sold. Actually, I didn’t know how old I was; but around that time I heard someone saying that the child was twelve, and I recall thinking “So I’m twelve years old then, am I?” Given that, it must have been about 1936 or 1937.
The place I was sold to was a geisha house in Upper Suwa called the Takenoya. At first I was wide-eyed with astonishment at its splendor, like a palace in a dream. […] But the rigors that began the following day taught me that this was not the soft life I thought it would be, that this was no haven or refuge.

For the next four years Sayo was at the beck and call of the geisha house “sisters”, running errands and doing housework. She also went to geisha school, learning shamisen (a three-stringed instrument played with a plectrum), drum and dancing, the arts that distinguish geishas from the popular Western misconception that they are simply prostitutes.

But Sayo’s geisha house, slap bang in the middle of a rural hot-springs resort, did not comply with the normal geisha traditions: sex was part of the equation, although Sayo only ever hints at this by describing herself as a “body for sale” and indicating that her role is to “make everyone, everywhere in your presence, feel that you’re sexy”.

Making her debut as a professional geisha at age sixteen, Sayo took a danna, or patron, a wealthy man called “Cockeye” who would financially support her. Going by the following description, she did not think much of him:

His eyes were squinty, he was going bald, and his face glowed bright red; when he sat drinking in his quilted cotton jacket, dripping with sweat and leering with satisfaction, he looked just like an octopus. And what was really creepy was that you could never tell where he was

Despite Sayo’s material comforts, her life over the next decade or so is far from secure. Among other dramas, she falls in love with a man she cannot have, tries to commit suicide and takes care of her long lost younger brother. But despite the enormous ups and downs of her traumatic, trying life, Sayo radiates an unexpected optimism that things will get better, that she will escape the trappings of her geisha life and find a more respectable way to make a living.

This is a sad but inspirational tale about one woman’s struggle for survival — and redemption — written in a straightforward narrative style, sometimes infused with unexpected humour. It’s by no means a perfect book but it’s a remarkable one given that the author was illiterate for much of her life.

Finally, this edition by Vintage features a wonderful introduction by the translator. This is complimented by a charming epilogue in which she gets to meet the elderly Sayo Masuda, who breaks her silence for the first time since initial publication — this is worth the cover price alone.