Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Since being at University, it is very rare that I get the opportunity to read for pleasure. My life is so taken up by mandatory readings, essay writing, and research, that when I get home, all I want to do is lie on my bed and play Candy Crush. This changed a few weeks ago, when I read Arthur Golden’s timeless classic Memoirs of a Geisha. The Novel was sitting on the shelf of a book exchange at Uni. I thought “why not”? This book is one of the most beautiful, heart wrenching, captivating novels I have ever read. It brought me to tears, it made me angry, it put a smile on my face. It transported me to another world, another time, and into a culture that was so completely new and alien to me… yet I loved every second of this book.

The story begins with Chiyo, a young girl living on a coastal town of Japan with her parents and sister. After her mother dies, her father sends Chiyo and her sister off to what they all think is a school in Kyoto. However, as soon as they reach the district of Gion, Chiyo realises this is not the case. Chiyo’s sister Satsu is forced to become a prostitute, while Chiyo is sold to a Geisha house in order to train to become a Geisha. In these early stages of the novel, you can feel the fear and naivety of 9 year old Chiyo. She hates life in Gion, and wishes to find her sister. Chiyo gets on the bad side of Hatsumomo, the resident Geisha, makes friends with another young apprentice called Pumpkin and even though she begins Geisha training, Chiyo is determined to leave. She escapes one night only to see Satsu working as a prostitute. When it is found out that Chiyo escaped, she is banned from attending Geisha training, and she never sees Satsu again. The pain we feel for Chiyo in this stage in the book made my heart ache. Chiyo has been thrust into a world she does not want, and cannot escape. She must feel totally isolated and abandoned. That is certainly what I felt reading the book.

After several years serving as a maid, and being hated on by Hatsumomo, Chiyo is at her wits end. The turning point in the book is when, age 11, she is crying on the street and meets a man known only as “the Chairman” walking with another Geisha. He offers kindness to Chiyo, buys her shaved ice, and gives her his handkerchief. He tells her to cheer up and that things will get better. It is at this moment Chiyo realises that all she wants – freedom from Hatsumomo, money, love and beauty, is all within her grasp – if she becomes a Geisha. Determined to change her lot and with the image of the Chairman fueling her, Chiyo works hard in order to gain the approval and apprenticeship of Geisha Mameha – one of the most successful Geisha in all of Kyoto. You can feel the determination of Chiyo and Mameha at this point – they wish to pull Chiyo out of the clutches of Hatsumomo and make a good life for her. That being said, you can still sense the naivety of Chiyo… she has no idea what being at the mercy of men means.

The next section of the book was very hard to read. Although Chiyo’s fortunes have improved since becoming a Geisha and changing her name to Sayuri, she has some trials and tribulations to overcome. The most important (and shocking) of these is her mizuage which is the ceremonial taking of her virginity by a wealthy Patron. I found this section awful to read. I know it does not happen with modern day Geisha, but the thought of men bidding on Sayuri’s virginity like it is a commodity, and as though they have the right to deflower a young girl completely repulsed me. It was a real eye opener to the shocking nature of the world, especially the world Pre-1945. Sayuri described it as painful, and uncomfortable, and accepted what was happening to her. It was disgusting. Something as sacred and beautiful as sex to be reduced to a ceremony and right of passage (for the men and the women) made me very uncomfortable.

For a while things seem to be going well for Sayuri, she is becoming a successful Geisha, and has wealthy important friends, including the Chairman. She is also adopted by the Geisha house she was trained in. This is very important, as it makes her the most important Geisha in the house – knocking both Pumpkin and Hatsumomo off their podium. This drives Hatsumomo into an era of drinking, irrational behaviour and craziness. She eventually gets expelled from Gion for good. Sayuri even has a Danna, a wealthy man who pays for Sayuri to live extravagantly, in order to secure the right to have sex with her. Although Sayuri doesn’t like her Danna, or sex for that matter, he certainly seems better than the horrible man who was her mizuage. It is then that World War Two breaks out. With the help of her friend Nobu-San, Sayuri manages to escape prostitution or working in a factory over the war period. She even experiences her first sexual encounter with a young man she is attracted to. This part of the book filled my heart with hope that she may still yet have an ordinary life, and be able to marry a man she likes, and who loves her. Alas… this is not meant to be (it was at this point in the book that I broke down in tears on my bed… Duncan wondered what on earth was wrong and had to cradle me while I cried before I could read anymore). This book is truly moving…

After the war, Sayuri returns to Gion and starts working as a Geisha again. She even becomes friends with Pumpkin again, and they attend many parties together. Sayuri attempts to secure another Danna to cover her expenses, but the only person interested is Nobu-San. Although Nobu is a good friend to Sayuri, she cannot face the prospect of having another sexual partner who she is uninterested in… especially after discovering what intimacy and sex can be like when you are attracted to the person. Seeing no other alternative, she and Pumpkin hatch a plan for Sayuri to sleep with someone else, and for Pumpkin to bring Nobu along, so that he will catch them and be put off. However…Pumpkin still has not forgiven Sayuri for being adopted by the Geisha house and brings along, instead of Nobu, the Chairman, a man who Sayuri has always held a flame for. This part in the book was completely shocking. Sayuri had done everything to fix Pumpkin’s friendship and assist her career. It made me angry to the core. It also goes to show that human emotions are not what they seem… Pumpkin pretended to be a friend in order to get back at her. This point was truly heartbreaking.

The final parts of the book are bittersweet. Sayuri thinks she will have to put up with Nobu as her Danna, she has lost Pumpkin as a friend and she may never see the Chairman again. However, when she is waiting for Nobu, the Chairman shows up. He states he has always loved Sayuri, and understands why she tried to trick Nobu. Nobu does not become her Danna. The Chairman does. They spend 5 happy years together – finally all her hard work pays off! Yet fate tears them apart, and Sayuri moves to America to open a tea house. Although she may be alone now, she had, for 5 glorious years, real love.

This book broke my heart. In so many ways. It taught me about loyalty, womanhood, friendship, and love. But mostly, it showed me how lucky I am, in modern day New Zealand, to be able to live the life I want and experience real love. My life is not determined by men. These women who were Geisha in this time are the bravest women in history… I commend them. And I commend Arthur Golden for writing such an exquisite book.

5/5 Would read again, and highly recommended.

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