Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha


9780099771517I’m surprised I hadn’t read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha years ago but, as they say, ‘better late than never’. This book accompanied me on the Shinkansen as we were whizzing around Japan and it was very atmospheric, so I was obviously going to have to review it eventually.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a fictional tale about a geisha named Sayuri working in Kyoto’s illustrious Gion district in the years preceding the Second World War. The novel is told in a first person perspective as Sayuri, now a much older woman, narrates her tale from her flat in New York. It was published in 1997 and adapted into film in 2005, which is also on my to-watch list.

The story begins with nine-year-old Chiyo Sakamoto and her older sister being shipped off from their little coastal village to Kyoto, leaving their elderly father and dying mother behind. The girls are tragically torn apart, with Chiyo being sent to an okiya in Gion where she is to be trained as a geisha. However, she is constantly intercepted and bullied by Hatsumomo, Kyoto’s most beautiful geisha and a brilliant literary villain. Just as Chiyo has given up all hope, she is comforted by the mysterious Chairman and vows to become a geisha. The story then follows Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri, one of the most popular geisha in Kyoto, her encounters with various men and women, before Sayuri’s very way of life is altered by the Second World War.

I kept forgetting this novel was a work of fiction because it is not only narrated in the way you would expect a geisha to speak – calm and controlled but also with a sense of humour – but it is so incredibly rich in detail. Arthur Golden obviously spoke with many geisha to put his story together as you learn so much about the life of geisha – from their training to how to put on the iconic make-up to the role of the danna.

I don’t like giving away much about books in my reviews because it’s always best when you find out things for yourself. So, if you’re looking to read a classic novel about Japan, are in the mood for a love story and want to learn more about the mysterious geisha, Memoirs of a Geisha is for you. And that’s also why it’s the blog’s Book of the Month.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

  1. Good write up. Loved this book! 🙂 Despite the cast being Chinese they did a good job with the film albeit with a couple of changes here and there. But Zhang Ziyi always get a 😀 from me! 😉

  2. Have heard this book being lambasted for being inaccurate of its portrayal of geisha and a lot of the contents are Western stereotypes of what geisha rather than actual geisha life. And the geisha Golden interviewed published a book to contest “Memoirs” because she was so upset about the whole thing.

    But I’ve never read Memoirs, so…

    • Wow, I wasn’t aware of that at all! I got the impression that he really did understand the culture but as it was fiction would have embellished quite a few things. I imagine there are better first-hand account books I should read next to get a good balance, but I still recommend Memoirs as it’s a generally enjoyable read!

      • I’m too scared to read it now, haha. People who have read the actual memoirs of the real-life Geisha apparently found Golden’s novel unbearable to read XD

  3. Read this some years ago and really enjoyed it. Took it on my recent trip to Japan to re-read on long train journeys, but found myself too busy blogging and never opened it!

  4. Pingback: Book Review: All She Was Worth | Sophie's Japan Blog

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