Thoughts on... Memoirs of a Geisha

Happy Birthday, Arthur Golden, I just finished your book.

That is, if your wikipedia page is correct and it is in fact your birthday.

I have a lot of respect for this book.  First of all, it seems authentic to me.  I did ten years of Japanese language study through school, none of which has survived three years of non-practice except perhaps a few very basic phrases.  And last year, I did a Modern Japanese History unit at Murdoch which was actually wonderful context for reading this novel.  The author says in his acknowledgements that any errors are his own.  I like that.  I like that he's covering his bases, just sticking it out there and saying "hey guys, I did ten years of research for this book, talked to everyone I could, but just in case I got it wrong, oops.  And Sorry."  Particularly considering my own research looks something like this.

> Goes to Library.  Searches 'Perth social history.'
> Results... one book found.  Checks out said book.
> Flips through said book.  Writes down a single sentence.  "Nothing much happened." 
> Writes from what she's seen in movies and then goes back to fix it later.

I know, I know, it's bad, and maybe that is why I'm not published.  It's not that I don't like history per se, it's just hard to structure a huge research project for yourself when you're also doing a degree that requires you to do other research projects.  I'm hoping Honours next year will teach me good habits about Historical Fiction.

But this article is not about me.

The other thing that I really loved about Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha was its interiority.  How does a thirty or forty something year old American man write in such a way that makes me believe that he is a teenaged/ early twenties/ thirties/ elderly Japanese woman raised as a Geisha?  HOW?  Tell me the secrets and I'll follow them to the letter because I always seem to be drawn to writing male characters aren't typically masculine.  Which is fine.  But it's not challenging and I do like a challenge.  Sayuri's story is framed as memoir, as the title would suggest, which is one of the best ways to break the classic 'show don't tell' rule.  You HAVE to tell in memoir.  But you have to do it in a way that shows.  And Arthur Golden certainly can.  His pace is natural and yet not to slow or wordy.  His prose is clean but there are no cliches.  His supposedly translated style comes across as... other culture-ly.  I honestly feel like I have been to Kyoto and back.  If only.  My experience of Japan in 2008 (around the time I started this blog) looks something like this:

Oh yeah.  Hotel yukata, green fingernails and mid-calf height Cons.  I was cool.  Serious.
But Memoirs of a Geisha makes me want to go back and see Japan in full technicolour.  Perhaps that is the value of a good novel.  The ability to transport its reader in a metaphorical enough way to instil a literal longing for a time or place they've never been.

Five our of five politely blushing geishas for this one.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!
    Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorite books. I was also really pleasantly surprised by what a good job they did of the film. I mean of course, they missed out a fair bit but I thing they did really capture the essence of the story.

    It's become a go-to novel of mind that I know I'll read again and again in the future too.

    Have you read any Anchee Min? I've found those novels to be just as captivating a read.


  2. No I haven't read any Anchee Min, but I will keep that name in mind next time I visit the library. And I'll have to rent the movie of Geisha too.

    Thanks for the comment :)


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