Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

RANDOM HOUSE, 2005/1997

From Goodreads:

In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world. For the protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.

We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child’s unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old. In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri will be schooled in music and dance, learn to apply the geisha’s elaborate makeup, wear elaborate kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She will also acquire a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O’Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work – suspenseful, and utterly persuasive.

I saw the movie Memoirs of a Geisha back when it first came out in 2005 and loved it. It was exotic and filled with mystique. Now, almost a decade later, I still remembered that feeling when reading the first pages of this book. But first, the plot: The blurb from Goodreads does a good job in summarizing the story. (Not that I’d compare the protagonist to Jane Eyre or Scarlett O’Hara, although their stories do have similarities.) The events take mostly place in Gion, a geisha area in Kyoto. We follow a small girl, Chiyo, on her road from a maid to a geisha apprentice and eventually, an established geisha. The exotic elements of the culture and tradition are explained along the way as the protagonist faces different stages and challenges.

What I found interesting was the Translator’s note in the beginning of the book, written by a fictional professor, Jakob Haarhuis, who was writing Sayuri’s story. This confused me for a moment before I realized that it was just the prelude to the story, although cleverly put. The story is written beautifully and colourfully. However, the explanations of different geisha traditions did, at times, slow the progression of the story. Whether or not the story romanticized the geisha tradition, I cannot say – at times it did feel like it, and at times it felt like the author was feasting on the not-so-pretty features of the tradition. I guess this divide was to present the battle within the profession – between the over-sexual image and the artistic side.

I didn’t absolutely love the book, but I found the exotic descriptions refreshing and the story very enjoyable. I’d recommend this to those who are interested in finding out more about Japan before and during WWII as well as those who are interested in geisha.


He was like a song I’d heard once in fragments but had been singing in my mind ever since.


2 thoughts on “Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

  1. So glad I popped along to have a read of your blog. You write great reviews, we have similar taste in books. I remember loving Memoirs of a Geisha, but I read it years ago before the film came out. I must read it again. Jenny x

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