Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

August 22, 2009 § 2 Comments


I’ve always been meaning to read this book ever since the movie came out (though I have not watched it yet), but I simply never came across the book. So when my friend said she had this book in her possession, I jumped on this chance to borrow it from her. She told me, “The book is so much better than the movie.”

The story, as is obvious from the title, is about the life of a particular geisha. Chiyo-chan, or later known as Sayuri (her Geisha name) is literally picked up from her hometown of Yoroido, and brought to Kyoto to learn the ways of a geisha. Her life in Gion, the geisha district, does not start off very well at all, and she ends up being a maid for a substantial amount of time before finally given the chance to learn the art of being a geisha.

I must say that I have always been intrigued by Japanese culture, and not least the very mysterious life of a geisha. I’ve always heard that the geisha was just another Japanese prostitute, but I had also always understood it as an art form, and a geisha was more than ‘just another prostitute’. This book, I think, successfully allowed me to look deeper into a culture that is all but lost in our times today.

The story was told as if it were Sayuri herself telling the story of her life. Throughout the book right from page 1, I always felt like I was sitting there listening to her story, and yet at the same time, I also felt like I was brought back to her past. Her experiences as a child, her fears and worries as an apprentice and a novice, her life as a full-fledged geisha… all of it told so vividly, I may as well have been watching the whole of her life, following her around as an invisible stalker.

The relationships between herself and the other characters within the story were very solid and very profound. Hardly was there a time when I felt the characters unimportant to the storyline, as each and every character was developed very well. The bond of sisterhood between Sayuri and Mameha, for example, was one that I found very strong and compelling, and certainly this bond carried through the story, the feelings of gratitude, respect and loyalty coming through at surpising times, like rays of sunlight peeking through grey clouds.

The highlight of this book, for me, was the very elaborate details of the everyday life of a geisha. Sayuri’s life, from the minute she wakes up, to how she manages to wear that impossible kimono, how she transforms herself with make-up, the lessons that she has to go through everyday, the logic and theory behind why she decides to show certain parts of her body, how she makes money and how that money is managed, how her elaborate hairstyle makes it near impossible to sleep as we do now.. Everything was told to such great detail.

A geisha is most definitely not your typical prostitute – this much I knew even before starting the book. The skills that a geisha has to acquire in order to be deemed successful – the art of conversation, dance and music – were skills, I would imagine, coveted by many, even today. This book managed to show me much of that, and at the same time entertained me with dramatic turns and thrills throughout.

Conclusion: 5/5. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’m now thinking of watching the movie, if for no other reason than to see how the adaptation was done. I was told that the movie is nothing like the book, and that the story was altered very drastically. So, should I watch it?


Postscript: I’ve read elsewhere that this book does not present a very objective or very accurate portrayal of real Japanese and geisha culture. I would say that this being a piece of fiction, I’d agree that we shouldn’t take this book as ‘guide to geisha-hood’. So, is it an accurate portrayal, and should we believe it? I wouldn’t really know. It is, after all, fiction.


§ 2 Responses to Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

  • Mark David says:

    “feelings of gratitude, respect and loyalty coming through at surpising times, like rays of sunlight peeking through grey clouds” — this is something I don’t think was highlighted in the movie (or at least I didn’t notice it), but excellent phrasing Michelle, it makes me want to read the book more 🙂

    I suggest you watch the movie. Though likely not a faithful adaptation, it’s still quite a good film… and I’m not just saying this because I’m a fan of Zhang Zi Yi 😉

  • su says:

    Mark David, I’m thinking I will watch the movie then. =) . Maybe after I’ve watched it, I would be able to tell you more about whether they changed the story too much or not.

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