MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
Vintage, (1997) Movie Tie-In Edition 2005
Reviewed by Barbara Fielding
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is a work of fiction but Arthur Golden has created a story of such astounding depth with rich, textured characters, it is easy to imagine they really do exist. Sayuri's story is a portrait of one of the Twentieth Century's greatest geishas from Gion, set in the 1930's. The beautiful Sayuri dictates her life story from her suite in the Waldorf Astoria to Jakob Haarhuis, Professor of Japanese History at New York University. After a brief introduction Haarhuis becomes invisible and readers are captured by the fascinating story of a blue eyed Japanese girl.
Her tale begins in the fishing village Yoriodo with a nine year old girl called Chiyo. Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold into slavery by her father after her mother falls deathly ill. Her father's boss Mr.Tanaka finds a place for Chiyo in Kyoto's Gion pleasure district at the household of Mother Nitta. Chiyo becomes a maid to Hatsumomo, the geisha of the okiya (household). She endures harsh treatment from Hatsumomo, Granny and Mother until one day a kind man, known as the Chairman, finds her crying by the Kamo River. He is fascinated by her blue-grey eyes, a rare and beautiful trait that makes Chiyo stand out from other girls. This meeting is a turning point in her life and opens up the future path to her destiny.
Chiyo begins her training as a apprentice geisha soon after that chance encounter, under the guidance of Mameha, one of the highest paid geishas in the district. As an apprentice geisha she receives a new name, Sayrui. It takes all of Mameha's influence and skills to help Chiyo succeed because Hatsumomo has made it her mission to see Chiyo fail. When the time comes for Sayrui to leave her apprentice status she is auctioned to the highest bidder for her mizuage, her first sexual initiation. Sayrui slowly comes to comprehend the true nature of the lifestyle she has entered into and the path her choices will take her towards. She holds onto the childish affection she felt for the kind man who dried her tears. In spite of everything she clings to the hope that "Every step I have taken in my life since I was a child in Gion, I have taken in the hope of bringing myself closer to you."
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA immerses readers into a foreign world with a mesmerizing effect. Sayrui's life is controlled by the attention of powerful men and world events until she makes a decision that could destroy her or bring her something she has always dreamed of. This is a beautifully written tale and is so absorbing it is uncomfortably easy to forget how disturbing it is that a child is sold into slavery and auctioned to the highest bidder.
Golden paints geishas not as prostitutes, but says they are artisans and entertainers. The moral questions of geisha lifestyle get lost in the compelling view into the cultural influences of the times. In the 1930's there were more than 800 geishas in Gion; today there are around 60. It is a vanishing lifestyle that Arthur Golden has brought to fascinating light. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is mildly graphic without being overly sexual. An unforgettable book, this story of the transformation of an orphaned girl into a world famous geisha is my one of my favorite books of 2005.
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