Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden
Review: Arthur Golden is an American. He is a man. He lives in Brooklyn, Massachusetts.
Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in Golden’s first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compelling as it is convincing.
This book is surely different and unlike any other book I’ve read, because of the theme and the way it’s written. The pace and quickly changing conflicts leave no room for boredom. It’s characters are vivid and the wording is clear and elegant. Personally, I’ve never became so emotionally attached to a book. I’d often find myself crying or laughing. There are many ups and downs in life that this book couldn’t explain better. It’s poignant, emotional and delves into the nuances of erotic maneuvering. It gives the reader a totally new perspective of history and a respect for the dramatic life of Japanese geishas.
The fictional Sayuri, based on Golden’s voluminous research, presents an illuminating portrait of a culture too often mistakenly considered synonymous with prostitution by outsiders. While certainly fiscal transaction and sex do occur in this context, primarily the geisha is an entertainer, one who sings, dances, converses and accompanies. In short, a type of professional companion. It is a tricky and often unfulfilled occupation, as Sayuri tells us, requiring tact, quick wit and at times unbearable situations.
Sayuri glides readers through the arduous training and ceremony of geisha apprenticeship and the rigidly controlled structure of households and relations. This world of slivers of exposed skin, demure glances, secret passions, appearance and reputation nevertheless resonates with the hushed sound of financial machinations. A geisha needs a rich danna, or benefactor, but often, the danna isn’t necessarily who the geisha desires most.
Sayuri has no say when, at only 9, she is taken to the okiya from a small fishing village. She has no say as she is abused and bad-mouthed by the drunken Hatsumomo, her rival in the household. She has no say when Dr. Crab outbids the Baron for her mizuage, or virginity. And she has no say in her danna, even tough she hopes secretly, for years, that it will one day be the businessman known as the Chairman.
Readers experience the obstacles and triumphs of a highly successful geisha known as Sayuri, from the time she was sold by her parents to a geisha family, to the triumphant auction of her mizuage and her reminiscent old age in Manhattan. Most of the story centers on the geisha’s coming of age in Gion (the geisha district), struggles with rivals and her search for love during the 1930s and 1940s. We witness her struggle from maid, to apprentice and finally an actual geisha, and learn just what it is like to live solely to entertain and be perfect. Arthur Golden portrays the story through the eyes of a young girl, allowing us to experience the thoughts and feelings of a woman in her world, as well as the characteristic grace, stoicism and politeness of Japanese culture.
In many ways, Memoirs of a Geisha functions as a typical romance—poor girl climbs the social ladder—but Golden’s exquisite execution never fails. The implicit risk of writing in a foreign voice never becomes and issue; indeed, it is forgotten as Sayuri’s charm enraptures from the novel’s first line.
However, the annoying thing about this book is the ending. It’s so abrupt and simple. It undoes all of the sympathy and warmth I felt for the character. She becomes very shallow and manipulative. It’s like the writer got bored, or was behind on his deadline because the last pages were very weak, as if gave up and wanted to end the book. I can understand why she ended up where she did…..how else would she be able to tell her story?
But it’s disappointing because here is a woman with so much potential – she’s beautiful and intelligent – but she is also trained to be manipulative, deceitful, and opportunistic. It seems to condone that the end justifies the means. The ultimate message of this book is; rely on yourself because everyone else will fail you. Not that this is surprising, based upon the environment and upbringing she experiences. It could be argued that she made the most out of her circumstances. For a book like this, with an incredible build up where you want to see everything wrapped up, there is no adequate ending. I still recommend the book, but warn against the end – what a letdown.
he metaphors in this book delve into the meaning of life. My favorites include; ‘I felt as a bird must feel when it has flown across the ocean and comes upon a creature that knows its nest.’ ‘Was life nothing more than a storm that constantly washed away what had been there only a moment before, and left behind something barren and unrecognizable?’ ‘We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.’ I was amazed at times with the writing and the detail of it. At other times, however, I felt the author sacrificed the story for style. In the beginning the metaphors were well-placed and clever, but as the story went on I wished that just once, Sayuri could say something without comparing it to leaves or butterflies.
It’s a novel that’s full of passion, feelings, and sadness which made me want to keep reading to discover what was going to happen next. The setting is what makes this book readable and enjoyable. By using original Japanese words and detailed descriptions the author draws the most incredible pictures in the readers’ mind. I liked that the heroine was not flawless, it helped me sympathize with her situation. But what captivated me was the subject matter, it’s a rare and enlightening look at a secret culture that’s both elusive and seductive. The book closes with an image Sayuri constructs, describing the choices she has made:
“But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however, we suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”
Near the beginning of the book, Sayuri says she used to joke that someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out. While her translucent gray eyes do guide the reader through nearly 40 years, that spilled ink gracefully rolls onto Golden’s pages, forming the alluring curves and supple lines of this elegant debut. Overall, this book is any amazing read that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I strongly urge you to read it, love it and read it again. In my eyes it has earned a 5* review and is generously rewarded.
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