Japanese, and also Chinese, culture interest me immensely. There’s just something so rich and colourful about both- in particular regarding the Japanese geisha. And so when I saw this book a few weeks ago, I knew that it had to find a place on my book shelf.
The story follows the character of Chiyo Sakamoto from her childhood in a small fishing village, to her transformation into Sayuri, a successful geisha in Gion. The tale sees rivalry between Sayuri and Hatsumomo, another popular geisha who lives in the okia (geisha house) that Chiyo is first sent to, and Sayuri’s attempting to navigate the world of the geisha- with the help of her “older sister” Mameha.
I wont go into the plot in too much detail as a) I want you to go and read the book for yourself, and b) there are so many terms that the book explains, which make it possible to actually understand the plot, that this review would become way too long if I were to define them all. One thing I did learn from this book was plenty of terms used in the life of a geisha and details about their world: okia, danna, mizuage, the grey market, the reason behind the ‘split peach’ hairstyle apprentice geisha wore, how the tying of the obi indicated whether a woman was a prostitute or a geisha…It was also incredible to see how geisha are different from prostitutes, something that many people felt they already knew the answer to when I told them about the book. The word geisha actually means artisan, and they had to become learned in dance, musical instruments, conversation, entertainment, and (of course) tea pouring ceremony. Upon reading of Sayuri’s life you do become immersed in this traditional Japanese culture- which makes it all the harder to digest when the old world of Gion comes into contact with WW2. What at first seems to be a very personal tale of one girl’s journey suddenly opens up into a much larger surrounding world, and it was humbling to see how this played out in the narrative. Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri was fascinating to watch, although as the novel progresses the reader begins to experience some unease surrounding events in her life. My top three unease-inducing moments include:
a) That Chiyo has been sold into the life by her parents
b) The ritual deflowering in the loss of her mizuage, and how Mameha explains what will happen during the loss of Sayuri’s mizuage
c) The baron sexually harasses Sayuri and yet as long as he didn’t rape her this is allowed to slide (although characters don’t seem particularly condoning of it, I felt)
There are many difficult to digest things in this novel, but Golden successful weaves them into the plot in a way that although you may be disguised at points, there is no possible way to stop reading. It is hard to believe that a male writer can so wonderfully imitate the thoughts of a female character- particularly one whose career is centred around her sensuality and sexuality. This is probably one reason why Golden chooses to devote more time to facts surrounding the geisha lifestyle, and also Sayuri’s intriguing internal monologue and thoughts. Golden is clearly a talented writer, both in this sense, and in the sense that the retrospective narrative still gives nothing away. He actually studied Japanese art at Harvard, Japanese History at Columbia, has learned Mandarin, has a BA in English from Boston, and has also lived and worked in Japan. When you consider all of this it is no wonder he captures the Japanese culture of the geisha in such vivid colours. Golden’s writing style is one I particularly admire, and here I have some of my favourite quotes for you all, just so you can get a feel for it:
‘Gion is like a faint star that comes out to it’s fullest beauty only after the sun has set’ – page 129
‘We all know that a winter scene, though it may be covered one day, with even the trees dressed in shawls of snow, wil be unrecognisable the following spring. Yet I had never imagined such a thing could occur within our very selves’ – p.161
‘I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon’- p.225
The ending of the novel, after such realistic details scattered throughout (Chiyo is separated from her sister, and they never meet again being one example, in addition to all of the technical terms surrounding geisha life), had more of a fairy-tale feel. That Sayuri does achieve her goal of becoming the mistress of the Chairman seems unreal in one sense, but also a surprise in that at several points I as a reader suspected their relationship could never be. Having said this, the behaviour of other characters (Pumpkin) at the end of the novel was actually what shocked me the most, not the uniting of the Chairman and Sayuri.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in Japanese culture. The best way I can describe the novel is as a Japanese version of Cinderella. A much darker and more twisted Cinderella, but in the sense that we see the transformation of the maid Chiyo into the beautiful and renowned Sayuri, a version of the tale. Give or take some abortion, prostitution, and shamisen playing.