Review: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha

Author: Arthur Golden

Published: Vintage, 1998, pp. 434

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb: This story is a rare and utterly engaging experience.  It tells the extraordinary tale of a geisha – summoning up a quarter century, from 1929 to the post-war years of Japan’s dramatic history, and opening a window onto a half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation.

Where, when and why: I bought this book in the Oxfam bookshop in the town where I went to university.  I think it was around the time that the film came out and I picked up the book because I wanted to read the story before I saw the film.  Five years on and I had still done neither until I was prompted to read this book in order to fulfill the ‘Read a book which has been adapted into a movie’ category  a reading challenge I’m taking part in on Goodreads.  It also counts towards my Books Off the Shelf Challenge and is book 19/50.

What I thought: Memoirs of a Geisha is not so much a novel as it is a love song for a culture and a time that have passed.  Reading it, I felt as though Arthur Golden really cared for the culture which nurtured these traditions and was nostalgic for the time of geisha, even though he never experienced it in its heyday.  It is a beautifully written book and is very visual; I can see how easily it would translate into film, and I’ve made a resolution to watch it at some point in the future.  The book was an interesting read, although the characters and the story were quite clearly only vehicles for Golden to explore and present what life would have been like for a geisha at that time.

Initially, this book reminded me a lot of an 18th century novel in that it takes great pains to fool the reader into thinking that it is true.  There is a supposed translator’s note at the beginning from Jakob Haarhuis describing how he met the eponymous geisha and came to record her memoirs, a device designed to give Sayuri a life outside of the confines of her story in the real world and the modern day.  The artificial creation of two characters speaking two different through whom the narrative filters before it reaches the English on the page should make the reader distrustful of the reliability of Sayuri’s story as it is so far removed, but instead it heightens the reality and makes the narrative voice seem more immediate.  At times, it is as though the character of Sayuri is speaking directly to the reader, as she does to Haarhuis (who is never mentioned outside the translation note).  While the account of the life of a geisha in Gion may be far more exciting that Robinson Crusoe’s laboured descriptions of how he finds, picks and dries grapes, once again Memoirs of a Geisha employs an 18th century device in the level of detail Golden includes in the story.  Like Daniel Defoe creating Robinson Crusoe surviving on his island, the story of Sayuri feels real because Golden tells the reader about it so thoroughly and recalls such minute things.

The details of the culture, history and rituals of geisha are what makes this book so fascinating.  I really enjoyed finding out about something completely alien to me, and I’m interested enough to want to read more.  It was my hunger for information which propelled me through the book, as I felt the plot and characters were a bit underdeveloped.  With the exception of Sayuri herself, most of the other figures in the books were either sketchy outlines or caricatures, rather than fully realised invidiuals with inner lives.  This is partly a result of the faux memoir technique and I think also partly because extra character development would have been unnecessary for — and indeed would have interrupted — Arthur Golden’s exploration of geisha culture.  The plot was similarly constrained by what would allow the fullest description of geisha activities and customs.  Some areas of the story which were actually quite important in terms of plot, the ending being the obvious example, felt as though they were skimmed over because they didn’t directly relate to Gion and its inhabitants.  Consequently, this novel wasn’t gripping but it was still really interesting.

Where this book goes: This book is staying on my shelves in my collection of novels about other cultures.

Tea talk: Rather appropriately given the amount of tea that is drunk in this book, I chose the time when I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha to start on the large round brick of green tea leaves I have in my cupboard.  I don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of carving off quite the right amount yet, but I have plenty of tea brick on which to practice.

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2 Responses to “Review: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden”

Comment from Stephanie
Time September 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm

I loved memoirs of a Geisha when I read it. I really should reread it.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 15, 2010 at 9:40 am

It was definitely an enjoyable read and really drew me into that world. I hope you have fun rediscovering it.

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