Book Review of Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden

I have long been fascinated by traditional Japanese culture and particularly the hidden world of the geisha so I was delighted to find this book in Fopp for the bargain price of £2. It is written as if it is an autobiography though this is an affectation as the author is an American male. It tells the story of a young Japanese girl in the 1930s sold as a child to a geisha house. She works first as a maid and then as an apprentice geisha. Her career progress is foiled by a jealous older geisha who treats her cruelly but she later resumes her career and becomes moderately successful. She falls secretly in love with a businessman, The Chairman, who knows nothing of her love. In fact she rarely sees him. Her virginity is taken at the tender age of fourteen. Interestingly, she is portrayed as knowing virtually nothing of sex. The War comes and disrupts the life of the geisha house….

This is beautifully written and it is an interesting story of a fading way of life, poignant and moving. Though Golden is a good writer I couldn’t help thinking in the hands of a great master this tale could have been a true classic. It is really a traditional romance about enduring love and yes, spoiler alert, there is a fairy tale happy ending.

I am no expert in Japanese culture but the book is definitely written with an American audience in mind. At times the protagonist reacts like a Mid-Western farm girl rather than a Japanese geisha. The description of Americans as universally kind and the depiction of New York as a fairy tale world at the end is jarring to a European eye. Would you really think so highly of a country that had bombed your homeland flat? At times the pace is slow and I did put it down several times. I would have liked more depth in the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed it and I did feel transported to another time and place and lost myself there for a while.

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