STARRED REVIEW
December 1997

Channeling another voice in a provocative debut

Arthur Golden

Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in American writer Arthur Golden's first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compellng as it is convincing. 

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Arthur Golden is an American. He is a man. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in Golden's first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compellng as it is convincing. 

The fictional Sayuri, based on Golden's voluminous researc, presents an illuminating portrait of a culture too often mistakenly considered synonymous with prostitution by outsiders. While certainly fiscal transaction and sex do occur in this context, primarily the geisha is an entertainer, one who sings, dances, converses and acommpanies. In short, a type of professional companion. It is a tricky and often unfullfilling occupation, as Sayuri tells us, requiring tact, quick wit and at times unbearable situations.

Sayuri glides readers through the arduous training and ceremony of geisha apprenticeship and the rigidly controlled structure of households and relations. This world of slivers of exposed skin, demure glances, secret passions, appearance and reputation nevertheless resonates with the hushed sound of financial machinations. A geisha needs a rich danna, or benefactor, but often, the danna isn't necessarily who the geisha desires most.

Sayuri has no say when, at only 9, she is taken to the okiya from a small fishing village. She has no say as she is abused and bad-mouthed by the drunken Hatsumomo, her rival in the household. She has no say when Dr. Crab outbids the Baron for her mizuage, or virginity. And she has no say in her danna, even tough she hopes secretly, for years, that it will one day be the businessman known as the Chairman.

In many ways, Memoirs of a Geisha functions as a typical romance—poor girl climbs the social ladder—but Golden's exquisite execution never fails. The implicit risk of writing in a foreign voice never becomes and issue; indeed, it is forgotten as Sayuri's charm enraptures from the novel's first line. 

Near the beginning of the book, Sayuri says she used to joke that someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out. While her translucent gray eyes do guide the reader through nearly 40 years, that spilled ink gracefully rolls onto Golden's pages, forming the alluring curves and supple lines of this elegant debut.

 

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Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel

Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel

By Arthur Golden
Vintage
ISBN 9780679781585

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