Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Author: Arthur Golden
Genre: historical fiction, drama, romance
My Rating:


Have you ever wondered what a book’s words would taste like if they were food? I think Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore would appeal to the tongue like a cup of tea, one so exotic it would convert you into a caffeine evangelist overnight. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief would be a stolen candy, a blob of heaven in your mouth that you wish would never dissolve—but it would, and after it’s gone you know you’ll be willing to steal again and again. I imagine the flavor of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things to be of an omelette from the eggs of a dream-eating dragon (if only, you know, such an exotic creature exists.).

I had a conversation like this with a fellow bookworm not so long ago. I remembered him telling me about the “oral” appeal mostly of literature I still haven’t read yet. One of the books he mentioned is Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. He described the whole thing as butter-like, as if the words would melt into your mind’s tongue while you’re reading it (non-verbatim, but you get the idea). I realized what he meant when I started reading the book myself.

Memoirs of a Geisha follows the story of Sayuri as she journeys from being an impoverished village kid to being one of the most popular geisha in Japan. She was born as Chiyo, a carefree girl from Yoroido. She was sold into an okiya in Gion and there she starts treading her way into Geisha-hood—which is, of course, littered with heavy obstacles.

It is no secret that Memoirs attracted huge controversies. There were issues about a certain breach of contract and a handful of inconsistencies that brought culture-related uproars, which just augmented after the release of its movie adaptation. These were not enough to make me jump into the bandwagon at that time, though. (I was always like, “I don’t need this now, my cranium’s near to bursting with all the Jap stuff from our Asian history class!”) Now I am realizing what I was missing in all those years.

The story was told by Sayuri as an old woman, recounting the past starting from a day that is “both the best and the worst in her life.” I like how Golden made it so that the adult speaker did not sound so invasive in the story of her younger self. Think of what most grandmas will sound like if they will sit back in their rocking chairs while imparting anecdotes of their folly as a youth, minus perhaps a big chunk of humor.

Golden’s descriptions are a joy to read. This is where I saw—or tasted, rather—the “butter-like” flavor of the book that my bookworm friend is talking about. The writing style is smooth. With its chosen POV you will be made aware that you are receiving the fictional story secondhand, but Golden’s style has given the readers a free pass to the past. You will be transported to another time and place, as if you are witnessing the events yourself.

That said, I am amazed by how deftly Golden weaved his words together. He took care especially when describing the various kimonos worn in the tale. They are spoken with the kind of awe only a poor girl would have after seeing the most beautiful dress in her life for the first time. However, I think it will work once or twice only; expressing everything in detail and with the same awed delight for the rest of the story is a little overwhelming. Golden’s writing seems butter-like most of the time, true, but that does not mean chunks of bread in it will be bad. ;)

My love for well-written bildungsroman is the main reason why I kept coming back to YA lit. Though not YA, Memoirs presented a rather…unusual coming-of-age tale in its first half. It is very interesting. Golden’s treatment of Chiyo’s slow blossoming reads a lot different from the western COA stories I’ve encountered before, and I liked it. I guess the history-based grit, which is spread throughout the novel, gives it an edge different from that of its peers.

Character-wise, Chiyo/Sayuri is the only I can consider decently molded, although there are a few times when I think Golden is falling short of the mark of effectively speaking with a female voice. I’ll even admit Chiyo/Sayuri is sometimes Mary Sue-ish. The others never seemed to have progressed past the second stage of their dimensional development. Potential runners-up: Hatsumomo, the only geisha in the okiya when Chiyo arrived, is an intriguing catalyst in the latter’s growth…even if that mostly meant she implicated a Cinderella-like syndrome to the girl’s tale. I am largely interested in the character of Pumpkin too, another geisha-in-training and in effect another “Cinderella” in the okiya, except that she was not as fortunate as Chiyo/Sayuri. I wished she was given more character weight instead of just being portrayed like a caricature for the majority of the story. I can see her as the most human if given substantial attention.

The male characters were not very remarkable, except maybe for the disfigured Nobu. The others gained no flesh and had nothing in them that could hook me. Chiyo/Sayuri developed a bizarre kind of love with one of these men, and personally, I wished she had just seen someone else—something else—that would fuel her to achieve greatness. As a reader, I think it was strange to feel nothing for the very person the main character holds in high regard, the very man that gave the narrator a spark of hope that she held onto through life. Knowing at the end that you didn’t particularly care for more than half of the character ensemble was a tad saddening revelation.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a gritty un-fairytale from the orient that wraps up rather bittersweetly. It has a handful of glaring flaws, but despite those I can say I genuinely enjoyed it. Perhaps I will pick up a couple of books about Geisha and pre-World War II Japan to check on the controversial inconsistencies, but I do not think they will change my mind about what I think of this book.

4 out of 5 stars.


  1. Hey, I'm the girl with the Heero Yuy's pic profile on twitter.

    I agree with you in most of the ideas and impressions about the book, now my life has changed since your book-flavors impression, that's a lovely idea and I kind of kinesthetic
    I want to recommend you a book called "Geisha, A Life" by Mineko Iwasaki (hard to find in my country, I don't know about yours :/). She's actually a geisha and she was the main character that Golden interviewed for his book.
    Iwasaki's book is more accurated to reality... but I would say that sometimes reality is boring.
    I did an extended essay for History subject for my Bacchelor IB Diploma and I wrote about "Memoirs of a Geisha" and the historical inconsistencies and stuff like that. I would be please to send it to you but it's in spanish (my mother tongue) but I can say that Golden was aacurated in most things. I can't help but think that he just wanted to increase the myth and make everything exotic and interesting.
    Great post Airiz :)
    P.D. (Sorry for my english)

    1. Hi, Chelo! Yes, I do remember you. :)

      I'm glad you liked the flavor analogies, it's one of the silly things we came up with when trying to romanticize books, haha. :)

      I've heard about that book too! In fact, when I tell people I've finally read "Memoirs of a Geisha," they tell me the exact thing you just told me right away. I still haven't searched for it yet, but I'll probably just order it online. What I didn't know was that the author was a real Geisha! That makes it more interesting. And since now you said, that she's she's Golden's interview, then maybe she's also the same person involved in the breach of contract? Did she write "Geisha, A Life" after Golden's release of "Memoirs of a Geisha." This really is interesting, thanks for informing me.

      Wish I can understand Spanish and read your essay! It's amazes me that you chose this particular topic to write about for your IB Diploma. I understand what you're saying about Golden. I'll definitely pick the book up as soon as I can. :)

      Thanks, Chelo!

  2. I could get into this book at all i tried a few times i read a few pages then found myself making my own story up as i went a long.

    1. I have many friends who have this same problem! I think they found it a little dry. But I'm a general fan of history, and I think that alone made me turn one page after another. I wish you'd try to read it again in the future. :)