Editor’s Note: While FUCHSIA often reviews newly-released books, there is an undeniable charm in revisiting some older popular books. In this month’s theme of women, we thought it would be interesting to ask a young woman of the 21st century what she thinks of the 10-year-old novel. Here, we present, her Book Review – Memoirs of a Geisha.
The beauty of literature is that it is transportation without travel. Memoirs of a Geisha is an engaging insight into a way of life that no longer exists. This fictionalised memoir by Arthur Golden is an expert sketch of a very foreign landscape for non-Japanese readers. This piece of writing, though set in the past, flows effortlessly despite barriers of time, language and culture.
It is a story told through the eyes of Chiyo, who has you rooting for her from the first page. She’s notable for her beauty even as a child, but her star quality is her cleverness. It is her wit that help her persevere, and this is what keeps her story from becoming too tragic to tolerate.
As she grows up the worst thing happens – Chiyo gets sold into slavery. Despite this, Chiyo – later named Sayuri – is upbeat and determined, and grows up to be an intelligent and crafty young woman. Her life is extremely difficult as she is tormented by the women she lives with. Particularly cruel is an older, adult geisha who sees the nine-year-old as a rival.
As her story becomes more bleak, a shift takes place in the direction of her ambitions – a shift all too heart-rending in its familiarity for those who keep track of patriarchy. Abandoning all hopes of escaping the exploitative system, Sayuri focuses instead on playing the system to get what she wants.
Metaphors and comparisons used in memoirs of a Geisha yield a heavy cultural lens. Customs are explained gently without impacting the story’s flow. The book explains what a geisha is; the complicated nature of the vocation, painting an engrossing picture as the characters come alive.
Bitterness is a key flavour in the characters, steeping their motivations in its acrid twang.
It is a love story and, to some extent, an exposé of the scandalous yet socially acceptable geisha culture of Japan. Read it with eyes open to the flaws of the system and, chances are, you might start to see with a keener eye the flaws in our world today.
Readers in the 21st century, with the freedoms we have, can never fully understand or sympathise with the states of mind propelling the characters in this story, all of whom applaud the system. The characters simply do not process their existence as subjugation of any sort. What the characters consider sophistication and elegance is merely an elaborately designed sub-culture geared to enslave women to men rich enough to pay them. Not an unfamiliar recipe in the kitchen of the patriarchy even today, but one we at least acknowledge as intolerable oppression.
The geisha subculture may have died out today but the toxic behaviours that caused the characters’ misery lives on. All the women in the book are locked in unfruitful competition, tearing each other apart. An older woman helps Sayuri out, but even that is, seemingly, with ulterior motives. Her mentors are exhausted by their constant struggle to attract and hold the eyes of men. Topping it all off is the noxious idea that a woman is expected to dedicate her entire life to becoming an expert on how to seduce and please a man.
Interesting to dwell upon is the fact that even today, girls around the world are expected to dedicate their lives to perfecting their habits, behaviour and attitudes to please men. Whether it is overtly so, as in some sub-continental cultures, or subtly so, as in many Western cultures. An often repeated scene in the book has Sayuri pouring tea and being instructed to pose in a certain manner so the man she hopes to ensnure will admire her gleaming arms. This is not given ot her as casual advice; it is an education, and a matter of her survival. Perhaps this might shed light on why so much Asian patriarchy has such an obsession with chai.