I watched the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha (by Arthur Golden) at the cinema in 2005. Although it was visually beautiful I found it really dull and it did not inspire me to read the book at all. However, I’ve recently been enjoying books of a similar type, and when I saw it for a decent price in a charity shop with a review on the cover calling it “one of those rare novels that evokes a vanishing world with absolute conviction and in every detail” I decided to give it a go.
It is the story of a young girl, Chiyo, sold at the age of 9 into a geisha house, and of her journey to becoming the renowned and successful geisha Sayuri. The story is told from her perspective as an old woman looking back on her life, so at various points you get a nice rounded insight into situations she experienced as a child – “at the time I didn’t know this, but…”. This made it really interesting to read, and I found the historical setting and detail about the geisha world engrossing. It’s full of tradition and rituals and it does paint beautiful pictures of a world that feels quite glamorous and exotic (in a strange way).
I also found her emotional story really interesting – the journey from being a young girl desperate to escape, to accepting her destiny and striving to become a successful geisha. At the centre of this is the Chairman – a man who shows her kindness one day when she is a girl, and whom she sets her heart on getting close to through becoming a geisha. In some ways this feels like a fairytale Cinderella story and you do root for her to make her dreams come true. But it’s good that the book doesn’t let you forget that this really isn’t a fairytale at all – she’s a geisha after all.
I followed this up by re-watching the film, which I have to say is much more enjoyable when you’ve read the book (and really, very beautiful). But they have sugar coated the whole thing, and made more out of the romance aspect than they needed to. At the end of the day it’s quite sad that she falls in love with a man because he’s the only person who has ever been kind to her. And it’s pretty sad knowing all the way through the book that, as a geisha, she will never truly have everything she dreams of. I won’t completely ruin the ending, only to say that even the happiest ending this character could hope for would never be a fairytale ending. I think they missed the point of that with the film.
Overall I found it enjoyable and interesting, and I’m glad I gave it a try even though I hadn’t liked the film. It’s worth a read, but it’s not one of my all-time favourites, and don’t think I’ll feel the urge to re-read it.