At nine years of age Chiyo is sold to a geisha house. If she is obedient enough she will begin her training to become a geisha. If she is strong and talented enough she will rise above obscurity. If she is lucky and perseveres her fondest dream will come true. This is the story of the daughter of a poor fisherman becoming one of the most celebrated geishas in Japan. But will her status bring her happiness?
I picked this book up at a store after watching the movie by the same title and learning that it was based on a critically-acclaimed book. It sat there for several years because I always want to forget what the story is about almost entirely before I revisit it. Just so happened that its time came during the week of season finales of my favorite TV shows and let me tell you, it held my attention so completely that I couldn’t put it down even to watch the highly-anticipated episodes. Luckily there’s Hulu.
Golden's writing reminded me of oriental silkscreen paintings where elegant, almost ephemeral brush strokes create a very solid image that is earthy and organic and capable of turning a setting that isn't that attractive into something beautiful. Here the setting is like splotchy skin under flawless white makeup: the world of Gion revolves around money, relationships between men and women and reputation, children are essentially sold into slavery when they are brought to Gion to train to become geisha and when they grow up they are almost always “the other woman” in the lives of the married men who become their danna. The book is so masterfully written that I couldn't put it down, but it bothered me that while it is obvious that Sayuri regards her life as difficult I never got a sense that she sees anything reprehensible about it or the world she lives in. I still have a hard time coming to terms with this aspect of the story.
Even though I could not readily relate to any of the characters I enjoyed getting to know them. Their personalities unfolded gradually and in one instance I was even surprised by the turn of events only to understand a moment later that what happened wasn’t all that surprising after all. Mameha in particular stood out in her role of a strict but kind and fair mentor because you could tell that there was much more to her than met the eye.
What made this book especially satisfying is that with the help of the foreword (or Translator’s Note, as it is called here) the story began in present day New York and ended there. That gave it a sense of completeness, as if the events came a full circle and had a true end. I highly recommend it to any avid reader and am seriously considering keeping this volume for my home library, which doesn’t happen with many books I read.