Historical Fiction

Memoirs of a Geisha

Written By: Arthur Golden

Published By: Vintage Contemporaries

Reviewed by Melissa Minners



            When most people hear the word “geisha”, they equate the term with Japanese prostitutes or consorts, but the geisha is a much more complex concept.  Geisha are taught the art of entertainment.  I say “art” because every ceremony performed by a geisha is a complicated action; every move, a complex performance fraught with meaning.  The tea ceremony, for example, is an elaborate affair – not one step can be missed; not one drop of tea is to be spilled.  Geisha are taught to play instruments as well as to dance.  They often take part in performances on both large and small scales.  Even applying the make-up of a geisha is an elaborate affair requiring the utmost precision.

            In the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, author Arthur Golden seeks to reveal for us the reality behind being a geisha.  He seeks to show us the human side as well as the artistic side; the performance versus the reality.  Golden achieves his goal in an amazingly unique way.  The writing is so realistic…so believable…that one would honestly believe they were reading the memoirs of a famous geisha as told to a translator and documented for the world to read.  However, this is a work of historical fiction that spans the period of time beginning just prior to the Depression and ending some time after World War II.

            Golden’s attention to detail, whether historical, cultural, artistic or other is phenomenal.  The reader feels as though they have been transported to Japan, everything they are reading about seeming just within reach.  The main character of Sayuri is written in such a way as to endear the character to the reader.  There is an amazing bond between reader and character that lasts throughout the novel.  The reader develops a vested interest in the outcome of events and feels a kinship with Sayuri, wishing her success in her mission to be with the one man she truly loves.

            Memoirs of a Geisha is indeed a love story of epic proportions.  The tale begins when, upon discovering that his wife is at death’s door, an elderly fisherman decides that he should sell his daughters into a life with more promise than the one he can offer them on his own.  The two girls were split up soon after arriving in a town called Gion.  One was sent to the prostitution trade and the other, Chiyo, was sent to an okiya in Gion, there to be trained in the arts of a geisha.  Unfortunately for Chiyo, an older, spiteful geisha living at the okiya takes an instant disliking to Chiyo and vows to make her life unbearable.  Just when it seems that Chiyo will suffer destruction at the hands of this jealous rival, Chiyo’s spirits are uplifted by the kindness and generosity of a man she meets on the street beside a stream.  The Chairman, as he is known, gives Chiyo new inspiration – she will become a geisha, if only to become closer to this man. 

            Infatuation soon becomes love, but one destined to be unrequited as, having become a full geisha, the newly renamed Sayuri is slated to entertain a multitude of men.  However, under the tutelage of one of Gion’s most famous geisha, Sayuri learns that if she is ever to become successful, she must put her dreams of the Chairman aside.  Circumstances strive to keep Sayuri away from the Chairman, but Sayuri never loses hope that she will someday be in the position to reveal to the Chairman her true identity and her true feelings for him.

            Memoirs of a Geisha serves not only to reveal the reality behind the illusion presented by geisha, but it also provides a different perspective of how major world events affected those living in Japan.  In serving up a beautiful love story that stands the test of time, Golden seeks to prove that geisha are only human beings under all of the illusion. 

            I loved that the introduction was supposedly written by Sayuri’s translator.  It added a believability to the story that made me check the spine of the book to ensure that I was indeed reading a fictional piece.  I truly enjoyed the closeness I felt to the character.  The pain and anguish as well as the joyous victories – I shared every emotion felt by the character and could relate to her struggles, however different they may be from my own.  Chiyo’s plight as a child was enough to spark outrage.  Her conquering of adversity brought about feelings of great joy.  The ups and downs experienced by Chiyo/Sayuri were realistically written.  I truly felt as if I was there, taking part in the story as it occurred around me.  Being a fan of history and a student of cultural beliefs, I was delighted to see the author use these tools to explain many of the characters actions.  The Japanese culture has always been fascinating to me and it was an enjoyable experience to read about the many facets of a truly complex people.

            Although roughly 500 pages, the historical fiction novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a rather quick read thanks to the excellent writing skills of Arthur Golden.  The book offers inspiration as well as knowledge and is highly entertaining.  No wonder the book debuted to such glowing reviews, inspiring movie studios to adapt the story to film.  Do yourself a favor and read this novel!  You won’t be disappointed!


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