Thursday, May 04, 2006

Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

I have to admit, I enjoyed reading a historical novel about a subject I know little about. I was able to enjoy this story without nitpicking every little detail. And I found the subject fascinating.

Chiyo is nine years old, living with her parents and older sister in the fishing village of Yoroido. But her mother is dying of cancer and her elderly father is unqualified to take care of his daughters. And he needs money to pay for his wife's medicine and (eventual) burial. The owner of the fish market persuades Chiyo's father to sell the girls--Chiyo, because of her remarkable blue-gray eyes, goes to an okiya or geisha house in Kyoto; the older sister, who is rather plain, is sold into prostitution.

Chiyo doesn't realize how beautiful she is, but the adults around her do, including the head geisha of the okiya, Hatsumomo. Recognizing a potential rival, Hatsumomo does her best to denigrate and belittle Chiyo every chance she gets, including accusing her of stealing an emerald brooch. The value of the brooch is so great that Chiyo will never work off her debt to "Mother," the woman who runs the okiya.

In her despair, Chiyo meets a gentleman referred to as the "Chairman." He treats her kindly--the first kindness she has had since coming to the okiya. And his kindness changes her life, more than she knows until much, much later.

The author, Arthur Golden, has done a great deal of research on geishas and life in Japan during the 1930's, '40's, and early '50's. And his research shows. The Japanese had a much different view of sex and fidelity in marriage. Mr. Golden details the training that young girls received in special schools; the elaborate layers of a kimono, the rigors of maintaining the traditional hairstyles, and the symbolism of it all. He also details the changes the postwar period brought to Japan and to some of the traditions, including that of the geisha.

Of greater interest was the internal growth of Chiyo, who becomes the geisha known as Sayuri. At first, she floats along the currents of her life, buffeted by forces she does not understand and cannot control. As she grows, she begins to see that she does, in fact, have choices, though they are not always optimal.

I found that I became totally engrossed in Sayuri's life--to the point where I would sit in my truck at the BART station to finish a chapter that I hadn't finished on the train! Since Sayuri is telling the tale, the story is rather quiet but intense, rather than action-packed and dramatic.

On the March Hare Scale: 4 out of 5 bookmarks.