Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden


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 make-up  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. — Goodreads


Title: Memoirs of a Geisha

Author: Arthur Golden

Published: 2005 by Random House

Time it took me to read: December 11 – December 27 

Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully written book about the hidden world of geisha. The book begins in 1929 with the introduction of young Chiyo, the daughter of a fisherman, who is sold to a Okiya in order to be trained to be a Geisha. After being sold to the Okiya, Chiyo is separated from her sister, Satsu, who was refused by the Okiya and then sold to the ‘pleasure district’ and is forced to become a prostitute. Chiyo has to live in the Okiya alongside Granny, Mother, Auntie, Pumpkin (another young girl) and Hatsumomo, a successful geisha who instantly dislikes Chiyo and tries to make her as miserable as possible.

Chiyo is on the path of becoming a geisha as well, until she tries to escape with her sister and breaks her arm. Her ‘debt’, which entails her buying price, food, clothes, money for lessons and other costs she has made, has now reached such an substantial amount that Mother believes that Chiyo will never be able to repay her, even if she becomes a Geisha. Chiyo is then condemned to become nothing more than a servant girl, humiliated and abused by Hatsumomo at every turn.

Years later, Chiyo meets a kind man who gives her some money and a handkerchief. The man is called the Chairman and Chiyo is instantly smitten by him. She gives the money back in prayer and prays to one day become a geisha, so that the could be close to the Chairman. Not soon after this, Mameha, a famous geisha and one of Hatsumomo’s greatest rivals, visits Chiyo’s Okiya and offers to pay for Chiyo’s training in order for her to become a geisha. After Mameha becomes Chiyo’s big sister (her guardian/teacher/guide), Chiyo starts a new life. This includes a new name and from that moment on, she is to be called Sayuri.

With Mameha’s help and despite Hatsumomo’s efforts, Sayuri becomes one of the greatest geisha in all of Gion. This is until the start of World War II, which changes her life forever.


I was completely enchanted by this book. From the first page on you notice how beautifully it is written. Golden has an amazing talent for describing scenes and for using metaphors. Some examples:

In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a ‘tipsy house.’ It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze – which is to say there was a burst of wind with a tremendous spray. I decided our tiny house must have been offended by the ocean sneezing in its face, and took to leaning back because it wanted to get out of the way. – pp.2

A woman living in a grand house may pride herself on all her lovely things; but the moment she hears the crackle of fire she decides very quickly which are the few she values most. In the days after Mameha and I had spoken, I certainly came to feel that my life was burning down around me; (…) One evening while I was kneeling at a table in the Ichiriki Teahouse, trying not to think too much about my feelings of misery, I had such a sudden thought of a child lost in the snowy woods; and when I looked up at the white-haired men I was entertaining, he looked so much like snowcapped trees all around me that I felt for one horrifying moment I might be the sole living human in all the world. – pp.339

From the very beginning Sayuri’s story is very gripping. The book is a wonderful way to learn about the ways of Geisha life, although I understood from other reviews that the book left out some important parts, and about pre-war Japan. Personally, I find the Japanese culture amazingly interesting, so I enjoyed reading about all the customs and history in this book. It describes so many little things, from the the way of wearing a kimono to the way a young geisha’s virginity (mizuage) is being sold.

I wanted to read this book because I saw the movie and I wanted to know the story in more detail. While reading the book, I discovered that although the movie follows the book pretty well, it has changed the story somewhat. In the movie, Sayuri is a demure and sweet young girl who mostly earns her success through the guidance of Mameha. In the book, Sayuri has a much bigger personality. Her wit is often displayed and she is as much part of her success as the influence of Mameha is. In the book, the relationship between Nobu and Sayuri is much more extensive than the movie lets on. They are true friends and she is the only one who calls him out on his crap, which he respects, I think. This makes what she does to him in the end of the book that much more horrible. Besides that there are other things that have either been changed or left out in the movie. For instance Sayuri’s first Danna or how Hatsumomo really left the Okiya. But I guess I can forgive the movie makers for that, as it didn’t change the story in a major way.

It is a very beautifully written, amazingly mesmerizing story and I enjoyed it very very much. However, if you’re going to read this book, you really have to be interested in Japanese history, especially in the geisha customs. Like I said, it isn’t a fast moving story with lots of exciting scenes. It is not a page turner. It’s slow and elaborate, which is also what makes it beautiful. I greatly recommend this book. I will definitely read it again!

Rating: 5/5


Author: EMK

Just blogging away in my free time while I try to make something of my life

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