I have a terrible track record of reading books that I buy because a movie adaptation is coming out. This is one of the many. I bought this book back in 2005 before the movie came out and vowed to finish it before I watched the adaptation. That never ended up happening and I lost the motivation to read it after seeing the film. The ambiance and story was so mesmerizing I was worried the book wouldn’t have the same affect. I’ve also never been one for reading historical fiction and I didn’t really feel that I could go out of my way to force myself to read something I didn’t have interest in. This book has sat on my shelf for 10 years and I have finally go around to reading it and am immensely glad I did.
This book details the life of a woman named Chiyo, more widely known by her geisha name, Sayuri. It is told in the perspective of Sayuri looking back at her past and the obstacles she has overcome to arrive where she is today. Born in a rural fishing village, Sayuri’s early childhood has always been relatively carefree. However, one day, her mother is diagnosed with cancer and her father, being a fisherman during times of bad economy, is too poor to take care of her on his own. He sells Sayuri, only around 10 years old, and her older sister, Satsu, to a neighboring man named Mr. Tanaka who Sayuri foolishly believes is adopting them. Mr. Tanaka instead takes them to the Gion province in Kyoto, a city far away from their hometown. Sayuri is sold to a okiya where she is to be trained to be a geisha. Satsu, who is not as fortunate, is sold to a brothel. At the okiya, Sayuri is treated poorly, constantly abused and tormented by a very popular geisha named Hatsumomo. One night in an attempt to meet her sister and run away, Sayuri is caught and destroys her chances of being raised to be a geisha at the okiya. She is then demoted to being a servant for the rest of her life. Having felt that she has lost all chances of a good life, Sayuri begins to cry while she is out running errands one day. In this instance, a man known as the “Chairman”, stops on his way to the theater while with some friends and comforts her. Having such a kindness bestowed upon her in a time of hopelessness, Sayuri develops feelings for the Chairman. Later on, Sayuri is taken under the wing of Mameha, a geisha rivaling Hatsumomo, to turn her into a geisha and escape her life of eternal servitude. Once a geisha, Sayuri is taken to entertain the two heads of a very prominent electric company. One, who Sayuri later on discovers, is the Chairman himself. Sayuri’s life-long struggle then begins as she tries to bring herself closer to the Chairman while still heeding her duties as a geisha.
I really loved the way this book was written and felt that Golden did an incredible job at using descriptive imagery. I had been worried that since it was written by a westerner, the language would white-washed or that a lot of the culture would be orientalized but that definitely was not the case. Golden writes prose so poetically, I honestly felt as if I was reading straight from the diary of a young geisha. A lot happens in the book but I never felt as if it were overwhelming or that too much was happening at once. The pacing of the book is perfect and never lulls or feels as if things were moving too fast. I felt a lot of empathy towards Sayuri, which is something that I find important in reading. Most times when I read, I feel very detached from the main characters and in turn, it makes it difficult to feel fully absorbed in the story. Sayuri’s emotional struggle is one that is portrayed in a realistic way. The choices she makes shows her struggle choosing between her desires and her responsibilities. There was never a moment where I felt that a decision she made was foolish or on a whim and I greatly appreciate that aspect of her character. I find it impressive that Golden was able to create such a full and encompassing world that certainly felt true to the time period. It is to my understanding that he has received help from a geisha who helped him with aspects of geisha life to get the facts as accurate as he could. I admire him for not trying to sensationalize or orientalize the art of geisha and instead showing it for what it was. One faux-pas that I wish Golden had dealt with better was the fact that he named his geisha source as is main help even after she had told him not to, as she would get in a lot of trouble since the art of geisha is supposed to be kept a secret and elusive. If anything, that tidbit brought Golden down a notch in my eyes and prolonged my weak desire to read this book. However, this novel is a gem that I certainly wish I had read earlier. It certainly deserves all its praise and is a beautiful story that cannot be passed up.