Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. Read more...
Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love, always elusive, is scorned as illusion.
Sayuri's story begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. Through her eyes, we see the decadent heart of Gion--the geisha district of Kyoto--with its marvelous teahouses and theaters, narrow back alleys, ornate temples, and artists' streets. And we witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it. But as World War II erupts and the geisha houses are forced to close, Sayuri, with little money and even less food, must reinvent herself all over again to find a rare kind of freedom on her own terms.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a book of nuances and vivid metaphor, of memorable characters rendered with humor and pathos. And though the story is rich with detail and a vast knowledge of history, it is the transparent, seductive voice of Sayuri that the reader remembers.
A dazzling literary achievement of empathy and grace by an extraordinary new writer.
Arthur Golden is an American. He is a man. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in Golden's first novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha" he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compelling as it is convincing.
The fictional Sayuri, based on Golden's voluminous research, presents an illuminating portrait of a culture too often mistakenly considered synonymous with prostitution by outsiders. While certainly fiscal transaction and sex do occur in this context, primarily the geisha is an entertainer, one who sings, dances, converses and accompanies. In short, a type of professional companion. It is a tricky and often unfulfilling occupation, as Sayuri tells us, requiring immense tact, quick wit and at times unbearable situations.
Sayuri glides readers through the arduous training and ceremony of geisha apprenticeship and the rigidly controlled structure of households and relations. This world of slivers of exposed skin, demure glances, secret passions, appearance and reputation nevertheless resonates with the hushed sound of financial machinations. A geisha needs a rich danna , or benefactor, but often, the danna isn't necessarily who the geisha desires most. However, geisha have no choice, for the fiscal well-being of the okiya, or household, depends upon proper behavior.
"We don't become geisha because we want our lives to be happy," says Mameha, Sayuri's mentor. "We become geisha because we have no choice."
Indeed, Sayuri has no say when, at only nine, she is taken to the okiya from a small fishing village. She has no say as she is abused and bad-mouthed by the drunken Hatsumomo, her rival in the household. She has no say when Dr. Crab outbids the Baron for her mizuage, or virginity. And she has no say in her danna, even though she hopes secretly, for years, that it will someday be the businessman known as the Chairman.
Taut and clean like the colorful kimonos Sayuri wears, Golden's prose ripples through the tea houses and parties, the conflicts and pain of vanquished Japan after World War II. He plays the witty and enterprising Sayuri skillfully, holding her loneliness and companionship, her pain and pleasure, her appearance and desire in perfect tension.
In many ways, "Memoirs of A Geisha" functions as a typical romance - poor girl climbs the social ladder - but Golden's exquisite execution never fails. The implicit risk of writing in a foreign voice never becomes an issue, indeed; it is forgotten as Sayuri's charm enraptures from the novel's first line.
Near the beginning of the book, Sayuri says she used to joke that someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out. While her translucent gray eyes do guide the reader through nearly 40 years, that spilled ink gracefully rolls onto Golden's pages, forming the alluring curves and supple lines of this elegant debut.
Reviewed by Mark Luce.