I watched the movie, Memoirs of Geisha, many years ago and remember being a little disenchanted by it. I have vivid memories of the beautiful kimono and well-done settings, but the plot itself has largely escaped me. I always meant to read the book that inspired the film to see if I’d like it better, and since we have a far-and-away square, how much farther away can I get from my home than Japan? I was excited to delve into this story until I saw that it was written by a white dude. Now, I have nothing against white dudes writing from the female perspective, many of them do it well. However, we’ve come a long way in what we expect from a male writing a female character, particularly one who is not of his culture. This book was published in 1997, and knowing that I was going to be reading the ‘memoirs’ of a Japanese woman sold into the geisha lifestyle written from a white dude’s head did make me question the validity of our narrator. Based on his bio and his acknowledgements page, it did look like he’d done A LOT of research to write this story, and I can recognize a life’s work when I see it. It’s obvious that Golden spent years working on this novel, and his research does pay off.
My favorite parts of this novel were the incredibly vivid imagery of Kyoto’s Gion province and the toll WWII takes on both the culture and the individuals living through Japan’s defeat and the American occupation. The geisha lifestyle is easy to follow, and Golden breaks it down for non-Japanese readers since our narrator, Sayuri, is dictating her story to a New York University professor as part of his research. But this style did make the prose suffer a little in my opinion. Sayuri repeats information often, which is indicative of how people speak when telling a story, but it pulled me out of the drama that was unfolding on the page.
But the plot point I had the hardest time believing, and the one that totally pinpointed this story as a woman’s tale told by a man, was Sayuri’s obsession with the (much older than her) Chairman, Iwamura. Now, while it makes some sense in the context of the geisha culture and their inability to survive without a danna, or financial provider, Sayuri’s infatuation with the Chariman comes from one, very minor, interaction with Iwamura when she’s about ten years old. His kindness to her begins a life-long obsession that has her literally doing anything to one day becoming the Chairman’s mistress. He’s like forty-five when she’s ten, and even though Golden makes it clear that many geisha-client relationships are with much older men, Sayuri’s obsession seems beyond cultural, and unfitting to the rest of the character Golden builds. It has a very teenager-in-love feel to it, even after the desolation of WWII and her maturation. That all being said, I do like that Golden uses this obsession as Sayuri’s catalyst to break the mould and follow her own path, and it’s the only way she’s able to get away from being everyone else’s pawn.
Overall, this book did some great things as far as being culturally sensitive, especially in the section on WWII, but I wasn’t fully on board with Sayuri’s character or the major plot push. The book was acceptable and fine, but it didn’t move me in the way I had hoped.
Bingo Square: Far and Away