When her beloved mother is overtaken by cancer, 9-year-old Chiyo is sold to a prominent geisha house in Kyoto.
Far away from the poverty of her small fishing town, Chiyo must learn to master not only the demanding training but the jealous rivals that would see her destroyed.
Only then will she be free to seek her true destiny.
Spanning over a quarter of a century of Japanese history from 1929 – 1956, Memoirs of a Geisha is the iconic novel by American author, Arthur Golden.
Since its release in 1997, the book has sold more than four million copies in English, been translated into 32 languages and spent two years on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Drawing on extensive research, including detailed life accounts given by geisha living and working in the Gion district, Golden rewrote the story three times over a period of six years before its completion.
It then was adapted into a feature film in 2005 starring Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe.
Although the film received some criticism for casting Chinese actors, it did go on to win a vast amount of awards including: three academy awards, three BAFTAs and a golden globe.
The main protagonist is referred to by two different names throughout the novel: her geisha name – Sayuri and her Christian name – Chiyo. (For the sake of this post, to avoid confusion, I will refer to her as Chiyo.)
The novel is written in a first person narrative with the concept being that Chiyo is retelling her story to a fictional interviewer, Prof. Jakob Haarhuis – who introduces the story in the prologue.
On the whole, I really liked Chiyo’s narrative voice. I felt you were given all of the relevant contextual information to make the story interesting without overwhelming the reader.
Her character was also appealing. I’ve unfortunately read too many novels set in Asia where the female protagonist is too weak and becomes incredibly irritating. But here I found that wasn’t the case.
It’s true in places she can be quite naive, but also possesses great tenacity, adaptability in the face of adversity and a very amusing sense of humour.
For a large part of the novel Chiyo is an adolescent, and whilst that can be a daunting prospect for any reader, I found the story actually brought me back to my own younger self in a bizarre way.
Kyoto offers up a host of wonderfully eccentric and outlandish fictional characters; the two standout ones for me being Chiyo’s main rival – Hatsumomo, who is deviously brilliant in her wickedness – and one of Chiyo’s main supporters – Nobu, an injured war veteran who is hilariously cynical. (I did laugh out loud on various occasions – you have been warned).
Golden also enhances the story with excellent descriptive writing, painting striking pictures of the various settings and landscapes.
I did particularly love how he intricately described each of the kimono worn by the geisha – it was a sheer pleasure to read.
Overall a stunning novel and if you haven’t got your summer reading sorted yet -then this definitely should be a key component!
Published by Vintage, Memoirs of a Geisha retails at £7.99 or $14.95 in the US.