Author: Arthur Golden
Summary: (Goodreads) Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess. At nine, in a 1929 poor fishing village, she is sold to a geisha house, the buyer attracted by the child's unusual blue-grey eyes. In Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto, she works to pay back the price of her purchase, while learning music, dance, elaborate costumes and cosmetics, and maintaining a fragile coiffure with a special pillow. With a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival she survives the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war.
Review: High praise was given to this novel and the title is a widely recognized one in the literary world. This is due in big part to the movie adaptation of Arthur Golden's work. In full disclosure of the proceeding review, I watched the movie about three years ago. I also have the vague inkling of a memory in which I read the novel while in elementary or middle school. But it could be pseudo-DejaVu from scenes in the film.
I felt the disclosure was necessary in order to then give my slightly critical review. Too much hype has given this novel a position I don't think it completely deserves. The high ratings are slightly inflated. As a novel, I found this a very good read. It just didn't meet the expectations I thought it would. Memoirs of a Geisha, while a wonderful story, is not a spectacularly symbolic book with extremely deep characters or a quick-paced plot. Now that we have established what my standards were, we can get to a specific review.
The plot moves slow. The pages seem to drag me along and I took frequent breaks while reading this novel. It didn't grab my attention and have me gripping the edge of my seat in anticipation. The narrator prepares the reader for the ending, so in a sense it was predictable.
The author does a good job at setting the scenes and the surroundings for this story to be told. Golden includes a fictional interviewer/translator's note to capture the essence and atmosphere of a memoir narrative. Sayuri sounds like she is telling her stories in an informal setting, looking back and simultaneously reflecting from her experiences while she thinks them. This unique style makes it possible to blur the lines between fiction and reality to convince the reader that this woman's story could have happened exactly as described.
It's believability and structure is a selling point while the reflective nature of the story does slow down the plot. Although geishas were the liberals of their time and were in the business of, in the majority, entertaining in informal parties, I suspect that their Japanese culture would be steeped in traditionalism and strict etiquette. This did not translate well into the voice Sayuri uses to tell her tale.
The book seems a bit too informal and the word choice is sometimes confusing. There are moments in which Sayuri uses conflicting diction when thinking back on her memories. In some cases, the denotations are used to convey a special meeting, or a sad event, but sometimes the culture and discipline of having lived the life of a geisha does not reach the reader.
In short, this novel did not meet the exaggerated praise heaped on it because it didn't make me want to read it in one sitting. I almost considered not finishing it 300 pages in. As a novel without those added expectations, it is a very good book. The genuinity of Sayuri's memories were well portrayed and it is evident that a lot of thought, and likely research, went into describing the decadent and alluring world in which Sayuri lived. The author's ability to contrast 1930's gion to the effects of war on what seemed like a paradise from the outside, also made this an enjoyable read. As long as you aren't looking for a masterpiece, Memoirs of a Geisha is sure to provide a lyrical trip to Japan.
Rating: 1 2 3 4 5