Thoughts: I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve read this novel, and I think it’s the sign of an excellent book when one can read it time and time again without once growing bored of the story that they know by heart.
Arthur Golden’s novel of the life of a geisha in pre-war (and some post-war) Japan is a captivating one, the kind that draws you into another world from the very first sentence. It’s at once familiar and foreign, simple and complex, straightforward and twisty. The story’s gimmick is that it’s presented as though it’s nonfiction, the transcription of a story that the geisha Sayuri told to a loyal friend and finally published after her death. The truth is that it’s a stunning piece of fiction. Arthur Golden certainly did his homework, it’s true, but the story itself is pure fiction.
Thanks to this perspective, though, the story feel very real. The characters, cruel or kind, are presented as real people rather than caricatures or flat character archetypes. Anything we learn about them is seen through Sayuri’s eyes, which is another thing that makes it very easy to fall into the story.
I was particularly impressed with the way some sensitive material was handled, such as the subject of mizuage, or the act of losing one’s virginity to someone who has paid for it. This could have been written distastefully, or Golden could have attempted to use the scene to convey some sort of moral message, but instead it was told for what it was, and any subjective thoughts were subjective only to the situation in which the scene takes place. I really have to give the man kudos for doing that so well!
If this book suffers anywhere, it’s in the overuse of similes. This is supposed to lend a somewhat poetic feel to the narration, and very often it works, if you take each event on its own. But when you’re getting a simile in every paragraph or two, it becomes a little difficult to read, and some of the poetry, I’m sad it say, gets lost along the way.
Still, when that’s the only real failing worth noting, that still speaks very well for the novel. I definitely recommend this to, well, just about anybody, but especially those interested in Japan, history, or memoir-style books.