Author: Arthur Golden
Published: 1997 (this edition 1998)
Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is one of those books many people have recommended to me over the years. Now I’ve finally read the novel, I can confirm that it does indeed deserve its reputation as a historical novel that beautifully evokes a mysterious period of history. It recounts the fictional story of Nitta Sayuri, a Geisha who worked in Kyoto’s famous Gion district in the 1930s and ’40s, and her experiences revolving around entertaining many rich and influential men. Rarely have I read a book about such a fascinating subject with characters that feel so real.
At certain points in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, the narrative is so beautiful that Sayuri seems almost tangible. The first-person description flows so smoothly that one imagines Golden writes effortlessly, even though such a stunning narrative probably has its every word carefully selected for effect. Readers will actually feel as though they are being given an insight into Sayuri’s thoughts. I loved the character, and often felt as though I was allowing the novel to escort me to another time and place- the aim of any effective piece of historical fiction. This particular quality can be attributed to Golden’s meticulous research on both the life of a Geisha and Japanese culture. The detailed description of Sayuri’s life- especially her childhood- ensures ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ reads like a real autobiography. At various points in his character’s life, Golden captures exactly how she feels. This is particularly true of the innocence she retains during childhood. On the opposite end of the spectrum, readers will find themselves genuinely detesting Sayuri’s nemesis Hatsumomo, who is cleverly described in a way that can make us associate her with someone we detest in real life, as everyone knows someone like her. I was certainly picturing the same individual whenever she was described! Without giving too much away, however, I will say the character eventually gets what she deserves.
With regards to the subject matter of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, rarely have I read a book with such an interesting premise. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the culture depicted and enjoyed reading a novel set somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve never ended up reading so much background information on a book- I felt myself drawn to articles on geisha and Japanese culture. The authentic description of the life of a geisha is given more gravitas as Golden includes genuine Japanese language in the book, as well as detailed description of traditional kimono. In general, readers receive a ‘warts and all’ view of life as a geisha, with everything from glamorous parties to seedy customers being discussed. ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is a fictional book that provides a very real insight into a culture of which the Western world remains somewhat ignorant.
As a whole, this is one of the best, most realistic books I have ever read. It incorporates stunning historical detail with some of the best characters I have ever had the privilege to read about. ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ has the capability to remind its readers why we read in the first place- to become lost in a novel and escape from our everyday life. Over the course of its 448 pages, this book captures everything from what humans will do to survive when faced with adversity to how war affects a country as a whole. Readers will delight in observing Sayuri through childhood, war and ultimately a happy ending.
Rating: ***** (5/5)
‘Although we may wish for the barb to be pulled from our flesh, it leaves behind a welt that doesn’t heal’.