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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden - A Review

Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical novel written by the American author Arthur Golden and published in 1997. It recounts the tale of a geisha working in the Gion District in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan before and after the WW II.
The main characters: Sayuri (Chiyo), Mameha, Hatsumomo, Chairman, Nobu.

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Although it is a work of fiction, narrated in first person perspective through the eyes of Sayuri, the feeling is actually quite real.

Like many a fairytale, the story begins in a poverty stricken village called Yoroido on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Chiyo aged 9 and her elder sister Satsu are the children of an aged fisherman and his ailing wife. But unlike her sister, Chiyo is a beautiful and bright girl distinguished by her lovely gray eyes that resemble those of her mother’s. But the girls end up being sold into slavery by a local businessman after their mother’s death. Chiyo is sent to a geisha house (okiya) run by the Nitta family in the Gion District and her sister Satsu into a house of prostitution. Chiyo makes a futile attempt to escape from the okiya, find Satsu and run away. Later on she is introduced to the life of a Geisha. She masters various art forms and begins to dress up in ornate clothing, makeup and accessories. She befriends another geisha around her age, nicknamed Pumpkin who lives in the Nitta Okiya. Chiyo the village girl blossoms into Sayuri, the geisha. En route to becoming one of the most popular geisha Kyoto had ever known, Sayuri must endure her rival Hatsumomo who is more or less like a witch.

Mr.Golden allows Sayuri to narrate in a simple manner using chatty and colloquial terms. The reader is able to relate to her feelings and the ordeals she has to undergo while being a geisha. We get to know how a geisha gives company and how she acquires a wealthy patron (Danna). The story is so convincing that you feel like you are beside Sayuri throughout her journey.

The element of suspense is encountered here and there.
Will Hatsumomo undermine Sayuri and her reputation? Will Mameha, her mentor, protect her? Will she end up with a wealthy doctor as her Danna? Or will it be Nobu, the ugly but kind business partner of the Chairman? Or is it the one she loves, the Chairman who becomes her Danna? This results in such an entertaining plot with a lot of twists and it holds the reader rapt. The author presents before us the portrait of a Geisha and the beauty of a largely vanishing world.

The book was described as an “overnight success” for Mr.Golden. But Memoirs of a Geisha came after 15 years of hard work and research. The best-seller was later made into a movie. The book and the author received flak for misinterpreting facts and information and defaming a geisha. Even then, it is worth reading.