Memoirs of a Geisha, 1997
Synopsis: Chiyo Sakamoto is taken from her small fishing village at a young age, and sold to an okiya, a geisha boarding house. Her sister Satsu, however, is separated from her and sold elsewhere. Chiyo is trained from an early age to become a geisha herself, but the resident geisha, Hatsumomo, tries to thwart Chiyo, fearing she would overtake her as head geisha. Eventually, due to a series of mishaps, the head of the geisha house refuses to invest any further in Chiyo, forcing her to pay off her debt via working for the okiya.
This changes one day when Mameha, a rival geisha, pushes the head of the geisha house to reinvest in Chiyo, and takes her on as her apprentice. From there, Chiyo changes her name to Sayuri and begins working as a geisha, while the threat of World War II grows ever closer.
Rich and atmospheric, Golden goes into exhaustive detail about the life of a geisha and the culture of Japan, cleverly done by having an elderly Chiyo/Sayuri be dictating the events of her life to the reader as a memoir (it begins with a ‘translator’s note’ that establishes this premise.) So those who are unfamiliar with the culture of Japan, and geisha in general, should be able to follow along without much confusion. Golden also writes with very evocative language, painting a clear picture of Kyoto and the surrounding areas.
At times very introspective, this novel is more a look at Sayuri’s life than anything else, and would be well appreciated by readers who have a love of historical fiction, the history of Japan, or even stories about forbidden love.
If you liked this book, you might also like…
The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery: The story of a young American orphan adopted by a Japanese family during the Meiji Restoration, taken in by a family known for teaching the art of the tea ceremony. A detailed look at the culture of Japan, and particularly the massive changes underwent by Japanese society at the time. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, it delivers a vivid, atmospheric picture of Japan.
The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz: A story of a young woman who marries into the restricted Japanese Imperial Family, and finds herself at the whims of the Empress. She must change herself to try and survive such a bureaucratic household, and the novel details her life. Much as Memoirs of a Geisha explored the lives of geisha through one, The Commoner also examines a mysterious and little-known topic, the Chrysanthemum Throne, and provides a fictionalized glimpse into this life.
The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan: Dealing with courtesans in turn of the century Shanghai and San Francisco, this novel outlines the connections between three generations of women. Though this does not deal with Japan, Tan offers a very atmospheric novel documenting how ancient practices are being threatened by a modernizing society, in a similar manner of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Geisha, A Life, Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown: Though this is not fiction, the author having worked as an actual geisha, this biography does certainly provide another detailed look at the world of geisha. Golden used Iwasaki as a reference when writing Memoirs of a Geisha, but apparently misrepresented certain aspects of the culture, so Iwasaki wrote Geisha, A Life in response. Very detailed, vivid, and certainly authentic; thanks to its close ties with Golden’s book, fans of one may well appreciate the other.