Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

As I’ve mentioned before, this is my favorite novel. It’s strange that it is, since I rarely read literary fiction or romance. What initially drew me to it was the historical and cultural slant, since Japanese culture has always fascinated me. But what makes it so easy for me to enjoy has more to do with how it’s told. And after reading many times, I think I can finally understand what exactly it is that makes me feel this way.

Memoirs is the story of Sakamoto Chiyo’s transformation into Nitta Sayuri, a renown geisha, and the suffering she experiences in the time that she is taken from her family and sold to an okiya in Kyoto during the Great Depression. Sayuri herself is not that compelling as a protagonist. Too often, other characters describe her in a way that doesn’t really come across to the reader, making her seem more passive than she really is. For example, she is often described as “having water in her personality” which is supposed to mean that she is independent, dynamic, and constantly changing her path. However, for most of the story, she is actually pretty stubborn and remains stuck on the same ideas and beliefs for much of her life. I’m not sure if this contradiction was intentional or if I simply read it incorrectly.

Anyway, while she may not be my favorite character, Sayuri is the perfect narrator. The narrative style feels like an oral history, with fun and illustrative anecdotes sprinkled in throughout. She begins the tale:

Suppose you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that happened a long while ago…

Golden’s setup of the narrative carries beautifully throughout, to the point where I actually felt as though I was sitting with Sayuri as she recited the story to me. Without breaking the reader’s immersion into individual scenes too much, it makes the reading experience feel more serene and safe.

Another device that works well with Sayuri’s narration is the constant use of imagery and simile to explain and illustrate situations and cultural tropes. This wouldn’t work in most contexts, but it further solidifies the narrator-Sayuri as an older, wise, cultured artist. This narrative style alone tells you so much about the character and helps drive the reader’s understanding of Sayuri’s growth as she gradually changes from the young Chiyo to the old narrator.

Apart from Sayuri, the novel boasts a number of enjoyable side characters, all of whom are complex and present dynamic conflicts and scenarios. In my most recent reading, I discovered that my favorite is Nobu, with Mameha and Hatsumomo sharing a close second. Nobody is who they seem to be, playing on the mystique of the geisha persona and echoing the disconnect between Sayuri’s reputation and what she tells the reader. Together, the entire cast forms a compelling web of relationships that is fun to observe, especially for those who love that kind of Versailles-esque intrigue.

The story itself is really driven by the characters and their relationships, both romance and rivalry. There are what I feel to be slow parts where the side characters drop out and leave Sayuri to carry the story alone, but you’re never left wanting for too long. Overall, this book is fun to read and a great example of a character-driven, first-person reflective narrative.

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