Reviewed: “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden

I remember being at an annual used book sale where the girl two people ahead of me in the checkout line was buying Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of Geisha and the older lady between us assured her that it was a beautiful book. I remember being slightly peeved that I hadn’t found it among the mind-numbing mass of books for sale that day. I wasn’t peeved enough to buy it for myself at a bookstore or used online, though. I’d apparently decided that Japanese geisha girls wouldn’t make a compelling a story. And maybe they wouldn’t have then.

However, I found the book at the annual sale this year and bought it. It turns out Japanese geisha girls do make a very, very compelling story.

I’ll admit right away that the only things I knew about even the idea of geisha were the stereotypes that prevail in modern, Western culture; silly girls with painted faces who turn to prostitution. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I thought the book was so good – because it proved me wrong and taught me more than I ever expected it to.

Geishas are/were not silly girls with painted faces who turn to prostitutes. At least at the time the story was set, and presumably earlier, a girl became a geisha because there was no other option in life for her; her family couldn’t afford to keep her or they were dead so they sent her into an okiya as a maid with the intention of becoming a geisha – and staying that way as long as possible.

It didn’t surprise me that so many of the geisha in the story, and presumably in reality, turned to alcohol as an escape. It made their lives easier and it was an integral part of their everyday lives, jobs, and very existence.

Yes, there was catty bickering between girls, and women, who thought they were better than all the others and deserved more attention, admiration, and material things but, really, what society doesn’t that happen in?

The story, though, was much deeper than that. A large part of the deepness is that no one character is perfect. They all have moments of light and laughter and of dark and sadness. It’s not really possible to like any character all the way through the story.

There are a lot of tragic characters – tragic heroes, for lack of a better phrase – that your heart breaks for. The geisha whose fictional memoirs these are, Sayuri, is strangely enough not one of them.

Pumpkin, Sayuri’s childhood friend and equal at the start of the story, is perhaps the most tragic of all. All she ever wants is to please the people around her and she’s turned into a pawn in a vicious game. She’s a minor character in the story, but I never forgot her and I wanted to read more about her.

Nobu, the man who loves – as much as he can love someone – Sayuri is another tragic hero in the story. Nothing went right in his life, ever, and he still managed to become one of the most powerful men in the country but the geisha girls in Gion called him Mr. Lizard and, even when he saves Sayuri again and again, she doesn’t want him.

Mameha, Sayuri’s so-called older sister in the geisha world, is a final tragic figure. It’s Mameha who starts the story with absolutely everything she could want, or so it seems. The further along the story goes, the more famous Sayuri becomes, the more she loses.

The only thing that’s soured my view of the book was reading that Mineko Iwasaki, one of Golden’s sources for the book, later sued him for breach of confidentiality and paralleling her life (source). She settled with him eventually, but I was sad to find that out.

Be that as it may, I will definitely be reading this book again one day.

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