Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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.

-Borrowed from library; 503 pages-
First off, Memoirs of a Geisha is not really a memoir; it is actually a historical fiction novel written by Arthur Golden. For someone like me, who loves gaining insight into different cultures and customs, this novel was a real treat. The novel describes the profession of geisha in Japan. To provide a little background knowledge, a geisha is a Japanese female entertainer who are skilled in arts such as conversation, dance, and song to entertain the guests of a party. We follow the story of Sayuri, a young girl growing up in a small Japanese fishing village. After the death of her mother, she is sold to the mistress of a geisha house, or okiya, where she is trained in the art of the geisha, in hopes of one day becoming a successful geisha herself, and paying off the debt she owes to the house.

What I loved most about this novel was Sayuri's resourcefulness. She realized that the only way to survive after what had happened to her was to make the best out of the situation. So she works hard to become a successful geisha. She totally contradicts the helpless female protagonist mold we often find in historically-themed books. Even with her driven attitude, her life is still difficult as she deals with a rivalry with Hatsumomo, another geisha at the okiya, who is determined to see her fail, for obvious reasons of jealously. Hatsumomo was a character I immediately disliked because of her selfish attitude and the contrast between her personality as a geisha and in the okiya. While she appeared graceful and demure outside, on the inside she was a walking-time bomb, ready to explode at any moment.

The romance aspect of the novel was also interesting as it seemed silent, but was a major part of the novel. That sounds a bit weird, so let me explain. Geisha are supposed to be demure and graceful; and are not expected to show much emotion. While there was a love triangle in this book, it wasn't a dramatic event full of tears and fights and throwing sharp objects, as you would expect. It was more of an innocent love Sayuri had for one man, but at the same time had to choose between him or sacrificing her loyalty to another.

The end of the book is can be viewed as a sort of bittersweet resolve. However, you will totally be playing the guessing game trying to figure it out, trust me, it's a really good ending.  While I could understand Sayuri's choice, it was hard for me to decide whether or not it was the right choice. In the end, I guess the decision that made her happy would be the right choice.

Taking into consideration, the great plot line, beautiful language, and writing style, this book gets 5 star rating from me :)


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