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Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden

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Memoirs of a Geisha

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Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden
Random House Large Print (2005)
ISBN: 0-7393-2622-8
Genre: Fiction

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - February 8, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha is a haunting, fictional account of the life of Chiyo. A young provincial fisherman's daughter with haunting blue-grey eyes, Chiyo is sold to the Nitta okiya (an okiya is a house where Geishas live) in the Gion district of Kyoto to be used as a servant and possibly trained to become a Geisha. Only nine-years-old when she arrives at the okiya, Chiyo's life is hard and her mistresses demanding. Yet all things considered, Chiyo is much more fortunate than her older sister Satsu, who was sold into a house of prostitution.

Written by Arthur Golden, this story was influenced by the life of Mineko Iwasaki, a famous Geisha whom he interviewed as part of his research when writing this book. You can learn more about Iwasaki, and her life as a Geisha in her biography, Geisha, A Life. Although Iwasaki's book may have influenced Golden, this is not a fictionalized biography of Iwasaki. Rather, it is a well-researched and detailed work of fiction set primarily in the 1930-40's. (Iwasaki wasn't even born until 1949).

Written as a first person narrative, Golden lets us see Chiyo's life through her own eyes. From the moment she arrives at the okiya, she finds that she is despised by Hatsumomo, the okiya's only working Geisha. Throughout the course of this book Hatsumomo torments Chiyo and goes out of her way to sabotage her chances of being a respected Geisha. It is only when Chiyo is befriended by Memeha, a famed Geisha, that she sees any possibility of ever becoming a Geisha and leaving her life as a servant behind. And leave a life of servitude behind she does, Chiyo, goes on to become Sayuri, a beautiful and prominent Geisha who is a master of the Dance and who is fervently sought after by many men.

From beginning to end, Memoirs of a Geisha is a fascinating book. Golden provides so much detail and insights into the world of the Geisha that you actually receive insightful history and cultural lessons simply by reading this book. More important, this is a heart wrenching love story about one girl's desire to be with the man she idolizes, but whose name she doesn't even know. Many of the interludes found within this book will seem strange to Western readers, such as the practice of mizuage (auctioning off a girl's virginity), but at the time that this book is set in, it was a standard practice within the Geisha society of the time. The book also details a Geisha's need for a Danna, a wealthy man who will help support her in return for which she will serve as his quasi-mistress during the course of the relationship, while still working as a Geisha and entertaining men in the teahouses. These insights, as well as Chiyo's personal development from a young girl into a talented woman is both engaging and thoughtful.

This is a breathtaking book, and it is worth reading simply for Golden's descriptions of Geisha life during some of the most difficult periods in modern Japanese life - namely, the Great Depression and World War II. However, when taken together with Golden's riveting account of Chiyo's life and her personal relationships, this is an unforgettable and 'must read' book.

In addition to being available in a variety of formats, including both standard and large print, Memoirs of a Geisha has also been made into a motion picture. Be sure to read the book before seeing the movie. While the movie is visually stunning, it does not surpass Golden's literary narrative.

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