A few weeks ago I ran out of books to read on a Saturday night. I scanned our bookshelf for something new, and I found myself looking at a few of the many books that Christina left to me. The only one that caught my eye was Memoirs of a Geisha – I had heard it was good, and I’ve seen it on many of the “Books You Need to Read in Your Lifetime” lists, so I figured it was worth a shot. Christina loved all things related to Japanese culture, and had even invited me to join her on her trip to Japan back in 2005, but then she had her accident and the trip obviously never happened. I don’t know if she ever read the book, but I know that she would have enjoyed it.
This may be incredibly naive of me, but I genuinely thought this was a non-fiction book. For whatever reason, I assumed it was a true story, and the writing style really didn’t do anything to make me think differently. It’s written as if the geisha is telling the story to the author – she recounts everything from the time she was a small child until the present day. Only when I was about halfway finished did I realize that it was fiction, and to be honest, it did detract a little bit from the overall effect.
Chiyo and her sister were sold when they were very young. Their mother was dying and it seemed as if their father didn’t know what else to do. Maybe he didn’t even realize what he was doing. Chiyo ended up at a geisha house where she worked as a maid and was destined to eventually train to be a geisha. Her sister was even less fortunate, as she was sold to work as a prostitute. They did see each other once or twice, when they planned to run away together. Unfortunately, Chiyo didn’t make it to meet her sister that night.
Even though the story is completely fictional, it’s clear that the author did a huge amount of research into the geisha culture, and it was fascinating to read about. I had always assumed incorrectly that geisha were essentially prostitutes, but that isn’t the case at all. While they do make money by entertaining rich men, and some of them do act as mistresses, sex is not even close to being a primary job responsibility.
I really enjoyed reading about all of the intricacies of not only geisha life, but of the Japanese culture and traditions as well. The story takes place right before, during, and after World War II, and those parts of the book did drag for me a bit. This may make me sound incredibly uneducated, but I am just not into history AT ALL. I found myself skimming through the last third of the book, only because the focus had switched from Chiyo (who at that point was known as Sayuri, since she was a full-fledged geisha) to more of a political/historical slant.
Overall, this was a good book and has definitely earned its place on all of the “must read” lists. It was a mix of light, easy reading with some parts that required a little more concentration and focus. It was full of drama and romance, in a setting entirely different from what I am used to. Highly recommended.