BOOK REVIEW | Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
(Book blurb begins) A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha. Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable. (Book blurb ends)
I remember the critical fuss made about Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha when it was originally published in the late 1990s. I have to admit neither this critical reaction nor the subject matter itself was sufficient to warrant much of my attention at the time. I was curious, yeah, but not overly so. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Memoirs of a Geisha so I took advantage despite a persistent lack of interest in the subject matter. Some of Golden’s writing, especially in the opening pages of this debut novel is strikingly beautiful. The story of Chiyo aka the geisha Nitta Sayuri is an interesting one, offering a glimpse into Japanese pre-war culture, in general, and the world of the geisha, in particular. I believe I did not bring as many preconceptions about the Japanese or geisha to the novel; in part, perhaps due to the fact that I saw the film adaptation of this novel several years ago. Because of this, there was little in the novel that I actually found surprising or unexpected. The pace during the first half of Golden’s novel is slow, almost glacial. It might be a deterrent for some readers. These chapters seem long because they are long and there is not much happening. However, the pace of the story picks up considerably during the second half of the novel as the word count of chapters get shorter when Sayuri fully embarks on her life as a geisha in Kyoto’s Gion District. In the end, I enjoyed the story, especially from Sayuri’s unique first person perspective. However, I am still not convinced Memoirs of a Geisha actually represents great literature. However, I will concede it is certainly a good novel and worth the read.
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
Paperback, English, 434 pages
Vintage Press, 1997
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