A Journalist's Archive

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Arthur Golden is a master of illusion, and readers could easily believe every word of "Memoirs of a Geisha" comes directly from the diary of the main character, Nitta Sayuri.

          But it is all a ruse, which is fitting for a book that describes an exotic world steeped in tradition where even the simplest act is transformed into a ceremony complete with pageantry.  In the end, readers must decide if the intricate Japanese tea ceremony only provides a cup of tea, or if a geisha is merely a courtesan.  

          "Memoirs of a Geisha" gives readers a glimpse of Japanese history and culture.   In Japan, especially before WWII, geishas were the ultimate "object of art" with their elaborately designed kimonos, painted faces, and graceful movements.

          Even before they were 9 years old, girls were taken from their homes and moved to geisha districts in large cities where they began their apprenticeship.  They attended classes to learn how to dance, sing, play instruments, and perform on stage, as well as learning conversational and social skills designed to bring pleasure to upper-class Japanese men.  Their education continued even after they became a full-fledged geisha.

          Golden explores both the beautiful and dark sides of that tradition.  He based his characters and description of life in Gion, the geisha district in Kyoto, on extensive research.  Then Golden immerses readers into Sayuri's life with a believable narrative that transports them to Japan. You can smell the fish, sense the poverty, picture Sayuri's tiny house on the cliff in Yoroido, and understand her desperation while she watches her mother grow sicker by the day.

          Her fate is sealed when she is noticed by a local business man, Tanaka Ichiro, who convinces Sayuri's elderly father both she and her sister will have a better life in Kyoto.  Readers experience Sayuri's isolation when she is separated from her family and placed in an okiya with total strangers. An okiya is a house run by retired geishas where novices, apprentices, and full-fledged geishas lived.  The woman who controlled their finances was referred to as "mother."

          Sayuri experiences cruelty at the hands of her new "mother," and the head geisha, Hatsumomo, who is jealous of Sayuri's unique blue-gray eyes.  But Sayuri also builds a lasting friendship with an "older sister" Mameha, who teaches her how to become a proper geisha.     

          What may look like nothing more than a life of slavery for the geisha should not be viewed from our modern viewpoint but from the time period and culture the novel covers.  Independent dreams and goals are a western concept, and during that time period most Japanese had little to no say about their desires, goals, or future. 

          Golden allows Sayuri to triumph by writing her story in the format of a romance novel.  She overcomes one adversity after another, manages to find love in a world where the concept appears to be alien, and finally controls her own destiny by the end of the novel. 

          And perhaps this is when the reader realizes they are reading a work of fiction.  In my opinion, Golden uses Mameha's character to deliver the most truthful statement about a geisha life, "We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying.  We become geisha because we have no other choice."

          Few real life geishas ever experienced the financial and social status Golden bequeathed to Sayuri, but "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a great window into a mysterious time and culture, and well worth reading.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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