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Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

This unusual novel is written in the form of an autobiography but is wholly fictitious; the author has spent many years studying Japanese culture and brings this to the reader in the form of a life story of a girl from 1920's Japan who becomes a geisha. The harsh conditions in which she grew up then onto the city to train as a Geisha are portrayed in rich detail with the main character really standing out from the pages. The grim struggle as a child and the intrigue of her early adulthood told in the narrative make a really good read and it's easy to forget that it is a work of fiction. The descriptive passages really show the detailed background work that has gone into the book as the author brings to the western reader the sometimes-closed world of Japanese culture especially in pre WW2 Japan before its dominance of late 20th century technology. Essentially the tradition of Geisha goes back hundreds of years accompanying the Teahouse as one of Japans more recognisable features. Often in the west Geisha are misunderstood to be prostitutes, throughout the book this is explained to be wrong as the name really means artist or artisan. There cannot be any doubt though that in many places the culture we are shown is abusive and exploitative. The young central character is sold into slavery really and her sister is sold as a prostitute, she is beaten and abused and lives a life of misery in her early years whilst training to be a Geisha. A Geisha that whilst shown in the narrative to be some kind of corner stone of Japanese culture really comes across as mental physical and sexual abuse of children for the entertainment of rich Japanese men. The matter of fact way the girls' virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder whilst she is very young - the winner being the rich dirty old man with the most money - and the price setting up the girls future life as a top Geisha. Throughout the novel the young Geisha vie for the attentions of frankly old men (rich old men) in Tearooms. The narrative attempts to draw a parallel between the western kept woman or mistress and the Geisha. For me as a reader the earlier western supposed mistake of thinking them prostitutes is actually closer to the mark. I found it more than annoying as a reader to read the characters endless intrigue to defeat other Geisha to get the attentions of men that had to be 20 years older just so they could get money to continue living the life of the Geisha; the fine silk kimono that feature throughout the book, the expensive perfumes and make up, all to perpetuate the Geisha culture and the training houses they support.

In all then a well written but frankly disturbing book that shows a ages old system of abuse as a cultural norm masquerading as tradition. It portrays well the struggle of women in a male dominated society but those same women then perpetuate the problem so it becomes a cycle. The book is set pre war and after the war much of this was swept away (I hope) with the integration of Japan into western spheres of influence. Worth a read for the quality of writing even if the subject matter leaves a bad taste.


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Blogger russeldewey said...

This book always comes to mind when I'm asked what my all-time favorite books are. I love a book that teaches me about history and cultures and customs of other countries. I agree, that was the best part of the book. Thanks for the great review! Made me want to read it again.

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