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Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Updated on July 7, 2011


Chiyo lived in Yoriodo, a small fishing town, with her sister and parents until her mother fell ill when she was nine. A chance meeting with a mysterious man leads Chiyo to believe that she is going to be taken from her current dirty life and given a new life in a better house. It turns out that Chiyo is right, but not quite in the way she could have ever imagined. When she and her sister Satsu arrive in Gion they are immediately separated and Chiyo meets a geisha for the first time. She discovers that she is living in an okiya; a place where several geisha live together and would have to work there for several months until the Mother decided whether she could become a geisha. She had essentially been sold into slavery. Coupled with her reluctance to be there, Chiyo’s tasks are made even difficult by the current geisha living there, Hatsumomo, who takes an instant disliking to her and antagonises her every step of the way. Seeing the true potential in Chiyo and recognising that Hatsumomo was just jealous, Mameha (Hatsumomo’s nemesis) takes Chiyo under her wing and makes a deal with Mother to allow Chiyo to go back to school if she takes Chiyo as her younger sister.

All novice geishas needed an older sister who would take them around the town and introduce them to all the important places and people. As a novice geisha and with the new name Sayuri, she takes the first steps to becoming a full-fledged geisha. She has to learn the proper geisha etiquette; how to pour tea and how to sit correctly, as well as how to apply all the geisha make-up correctly. Mameha’s first task is to help Sayuri find a man to whom she can auction off her mizuage (her virginity), the higher the winner’s price the more likely it is that the geisha will do well. After this, Sayuri then has to learn how to compete against other geishas to win a danna which is like a patron who will financially back a geisha; buy her jewelry, expensive gifts and kimonos. Succeeding in these things will help Sayuri reach her ultimate goal which is to be the one geisha from her okiya that Mother chooses to adopt.


‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is fiction but it is written very much as if it were fact. Arthur Golden writes the translator’s note in the front as Jakob Haarhuis, a Japanese history Professor who is documenting Nitta Sayuri’s life as she dictates it to him. He makes reference to her death, and how she wished the memoirs to be published only after she died. As I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha I was fully convinced it was fact and I think it was only mid-way through that I stopped and thought ‘hold on a minute!’ The acknowledgements in the back are actually written by Arthur Golden where he controversially names a geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, who he spoke to in order to get all his facts correct. Amongst geisha there is usually a code of silence and by being named she was ostracized by many in the community as well as being sent death threats. It also transpired several years later that Golden had basically based the whole book on Mineko’s life, only changing some of the aspects to make a more exciting story.

I really enjoyed this book, it was completely absorbing and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I read it about a month ago and have just got around to writing the review, so I had to go back to the book to remember some of the details. When I did this I found I kept reading several chapters at a time before remembering what I was supposed to be doing and putting it down. As you read you get the sensation that you are being dragged into the book. I love that feeling when you start reading and suddenly you realise that you are completely engrossed in a book. Golden writes in a way that allows you to conjure images in your mind and gives lots of detail so it is easy to believe you are there.

In 2006, Memoirs of a Geisha was released as a film directed by Rob Marshall. I actually bought the book because I had seen the film and was so impressed by it. Having now read the book I’ll have to go out and buy the film to see it again. Zhang Ziyi who played Sayuri, I remember being beautiful with the trademark blue-grey eyes and really soft features and looking back I feel like she really did the character justice. Her being casted as the lead role was also controversial at the time because Zhang Ziyi is actually Chinese and understandably many Japanese and Chinese were unhappy about this and saw it as discourteous on the part of the West, who they thought didn’t care to get such an important detail right.

But back to the book, I would really recommend Memoirs of a Geisha to anyone. Really, anyone. It’s a wonderfully written and compelling story that you just can’t put down. The characters are all well developed and it was easy to follow who was who, which I often find difficult when there are lots are characters with foreign names. I really felt all of Chiyo/Sayuri’s emotions; I empathised with her, felt her confused as she is taken from her hometown and dragged into a crazy world, felt her frustration as she struggles to get any form of acceptance. I just love entering into someone else’s world, either fictional or historical, and getting to live vicariously a life that another had.


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    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      I remember seeing the movie and thinking how well done it was and what a great story. I've never read the book. Guess I'll have to read it now! I love books that pull you in and hold you there until the end, too.

    • Felix Zapata profile image

      Felix Zapata 7 years ago

      loved the book, the movie was unforgettable. I still listen to the music and it brings back many beautiful memories. Zhang Ziyi was perfect for the part of Sayuri. Will read the book again and again, will see the movie again and again.

    • profile image

      Becky 7 years ago

      I am with you rgarnett- I felt the same way (book much better than the movie)- however I usually tend to like the books so much better than movies. When it comes to memoirs I typically try not to watch the movies... but absolutely love the books. It has become my new favorite genre. In fact I just recently finished reading a really great one titled, "There's Something About Daniel," by Robyn Stecher. I loved the story so much but found the writing to be incredible- Stecher is a gifted story teller, whose book resonates with heart, wisdom, humor, knowledge, love and faith in her very special son and love for her very special life.

    • jenblacksheep profile image

      jenblacksheep 7 years ago from England

      Perhaps it's coz I saw the film before I read the book. Maybe when I watch the film again it'll be different now that I have read it.

    • rgarnett profile image

      Rachael Fields 7 years ago from KC, MO

      I remember when I read this book I was so excited for the film to come out. I was incredibly disappointed by the film. Well done on the review, I just found the book so much better than the film. :)

    • profile image

      Chotti 7 years ago

      I loved this book too, it reminds me of Cinderella, so I think that's why I liked it so much. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I really want to.