Regular reviewer Chloe Glassonbury introduces us to Arthur Golden’s unusual historical novel…
Japan’s geisha are part of a centuries old practice with rich cultural traditions. Geisha are essentially entertainers to the elite men of Japanese society, but the process of entertaining is as much an art form as it is a job. Trained as children in traditional dance, tea-making ceremony and music, geisha learn to follow strict customs of etiquette and appearance, which include distinctive makeup, ornate hairstyles and luxurious kimono. Golden depicts this rich, ancient culture in early-twentieth century Gion, where the world of geisha and their clients is highly exclusive. Yet this fascinating world of ancient tradition and modern excess is only the surface of life as a geisha and of Golden’s novel.
Golden’s protagonist and narrator Chiyo starts life in a small fishing village in Japan. Her mundane life is irrevocably altered when she is sold to an Okiya in Gion – a geisha house that arranges her training and career. The novel follows her years of schooling and apprenticeship, unveiling the unglamorous reality of life as young trainee geisha. As her training progresses, we learn of the crippling debts young geishas are inflicted with to pay for their training and lodgings, which tie them to their Okiya’s in such a way that is tantamount to slavery. Chiyo’s suffering is made worse by the presence of a truly malicious older geisha in her Okiya, Hatsumomo. Hatsumomo’s hatred for Chiyo lends drama to the novel, injecting sub-plots of scheming and revenge which transform the book from a simply descriptive piece into a truly engaging and unpredictable story, rife with plot-twists. Deeper still, Memoirs of a Geisha depicts the deterioration of Japan during and after the Second World War, with the struggle facing the newly impoverished civilians to survive through years of economic turmoil and hazardous unsafety. And at its core, Memoirs of a Geisha confronts the reader with what is essentially a story of child slavery which, although Golden implies that geishas themselves would disagree, ultimately results in prostitution.
The descriptions of Japanese culture, the account of life as a geisha, and the scheming and strategy which drive the plot all accumulate to make Memoirs of a Geisha a truly engaging read. In spite of this, it is not without its faults, the most glaring of which lies in its characterisation. Most of the main characters are one-dimensional and clichéd, requiring but a few words to describe their personality: Hatsumomo plays the evil arch-villain, the Okiya’s owner, ‘Mother’, is selfish and money-driven. Even Chiyo herself, despite all the adversity she has faced and conquered, seems little more than an archetypal presentation of femininity. Golden could easily be forgiven for these flaws, since each of these characters still profoundly influence the novel and leave their impression upon the reader. However, Chiyo develops a love interest, the pursuit of which comes to dominate the plot. The man who is the focus of this obsession is completely bland, with no perceptible personality traits whatsoever. Rather than adding to the plot, the love interest becomes a point of confusion, there is no realistic explanation for Chiyo’s feelings. This results in an otherwise engaging and exciting novel falling somewhat flat in the final section, leaving a sense that the conclusion fails to live up to the brilliance and innovation that was anticipated at the start.
Chloe Glassonbury, Books Teambookmark me