Let me begin this by saying no other book has ever caught me quite the way this book has. I felt like a fish in Yoroido, Japan, caught by one of the local fishermen with no other choice but surrender and admit defeat. This book has really caught my attention, my love, my soul and I could do nothing more but succumb to it; temporarily forgetting reality.
As everyone can pretty much gather, it’s a book that tells about the life of a Geisha. And how interesting a Geisha’s life is! But before anything, anyone can be thinking, “Oh a Geisha! You mean a prostitute?” I honestly have been thinking the same; before, while, and after reading the book. And I honestly can’t determine if they are indeed considered prostitutes, but I debated with myself over this considering all the facts given in the book. I suppose it’ll be up to your interpretation. I mean, yeah spending time with a Geisha does require a few yens…And they charge by hour! Well, depending on the Geisha’s ranking, they sometimes charge every 15 minutes. But unlike with a prostitute, Geisha’s aren’t just expected to take off their kimonos for just any man, there’s a process –even as far as having some sort of ceremony that is linked with traditions and superstitions and let me tell you, Geishas are very very superstitious. They consult almanacs, fortune tellers and have a whole lot of superstitious beliefs that don’t really make sense but I suppose it works for them. At one point, Sayuri –the main heroine was almost run over while on the way to an errand and she later checked her almanac and it told her not to walk to the direction of the rat…Which was, you guessed it, where she was exactly walking to. But going back, Geishas don’t just engage with any man; any man who desires to be with a Geisha must make arrangements with the okiya the desired Geisha belongs to.
*An okiya is where a Geisha lives, trains, and basically it’s their home and their family even though there is at all no blood relation, at least usually.*
The book is a Historical Fiction novel written by a first-time American author Arthur Golden. Now, I’m wondering the same thing, if it’s a memoir, and the main character is a Japanese woman, how could she have told her story so captivatingly? Towards the end of the book, Sayuri ends up accompanying her danna –what a Geisha’s patron was called, to the United States and later stayed there and established a small teahouse for Geishas to entertain Japanese men in the city of New York. But alas, I later learned that this was all about a FICTIONAL Geisha set during World War II. Here I was thinking it was a real memoir! Instead of a fictional book written by a 40 something American who has never lived to anything remotely close to Kyoto, Japan! And yet here is a good book precisely written, or more accurately, well researched. In any case, you’ll find this a really interesting book and I’m sure anyone would enjoy learning about the intricate weavings of Geishas and the roles they played in shaping Japanese culture and tradition.
But one thing that really stood out for me, aside from the peculiar traditions, was how the book so vividly painted how society cared so much about physical appearance. At the beginning of the book, we have Chiyo –Sayuri’s name before she became a Geisha and altogether changed her name, (yes…like a prostitute does..), and her older sister, Satsu. Chiyo had peculiar eyes, blue-gray as it was described. And it was terribly unusual for Asians to have this eye color, usually it’s a dark brown, more black than brown really. Although the book didn’t really specify particularly, we can safely assume that between the two, Chiyo was the beautiful one. So when Chiyo meets Mr. Tanaka, owner of the local seafood company, amidst her family falling apart due to her mother’s sickness and her father’s cold heart, she was immediately thought of as being destined to be a Geisha, just because she had beautiful eyes..as for Satsu? She was sold to a whorehouse in another part of Kyoto, (Sorry that was a spoiler). This really made me realize how unfair it is. I mean, Chiyo’s faith wasn’t much better, they were both basically sold, but it’s unfair to decide their faiths based on their physical attributes. This sort of injustice is clearly seen although out the book. Even Sayuri herself was judgmental in this way with the men she would later be acquainted with.
But the book also painted beauty as a flaw. Here are a hundred or so girls, training in various art forms like dancing, singing, and playing traditional instruments, just to be called beautiful and to be admired by many. The desire to be on top and to win the informal competition among girls and their rivalry amongst themselves can drive anyone insane. And yes, at one point someone does go insane.
“I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon.”
“A tree may look as beautiful as ever; but when you notice the insects infecting it, and the tips of the branches that are brown from disease, even the trunk seems to lose some of its magnificence.”
The writing style is beautiful, as you’d expect from Japanese writing. It was very poetic. Sayuri, who narrated the book, would often compare this and that with nature and past experiences you’d never think of relating. An example would be:
“I felt as sore as a rock must feel when the waterfall has pounded on it all day long.”
At some point it’ll rub on you. You’ll find yourself talking the way they do, describing things and thinking the same way they do. At least that’s what happened in my case. I found myself stopping to think and just reflect. I assure you this book will cause you to rethink your every past decision. No matter how small or how remotely different it is compared to the things mentioned in the book. It is definitely a must-read for all ages, and obviously gets a full five stars from me.
The book also talks about grief, something I’m sure every one of us can relate to. Sayuri was barely nine when she was first brought to the okiya, so imagine how she felt. She was mourning her family; her future, her life that she felt was all taken from her, because it was indeed taken from her:
“We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no choice.”
The book ends beautifully with Sayuri talking about pain and being able to share her pain with readers: “Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”
This really gives me hope and reminds me that no matter how vast our sufferings today are, tomorrow or maybe in a longer time from now, everything will be better and brighter. Sayuri found hope, and she imparts it as best she can: “I don’t think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.”
Everything has an end, even pain and suffering. Just Hold on.