Having never read the book or seen the film, I was quite pleased to spot this is a second-hand book shop a few months ago. The novel tells the story of Sayuri, a successful geisha living in the Gion district of Kyoto. It details how she came to be a geisha and her life in that world, interrupted only by World War Two.
If you don’t know what a geisha is, or aren’t terribly clear on the concept, as I wasn’t, allow me to explain (as best as I can from knowledge picked up from the book and the Wikipedia entry on Geisha, anyway).
A geisha is a woman who has trained for years in the art of entertaining. This includes formal lessons on traditional Japanese dance and instruments as well as informal lessons on conversation and games to play with clients. They are hired to appear at parties and teahouses to ensure guests have a good time. Today they are often thought to be prostitutes, but this isn’t so – though the book gives the impression that sexual services did play a part. Several of Sayuri’s wealthy admirers bid on her mizuage – the right to take an apprentice geisha’s virginity, which was very expensive. Many geisha also had a danna, a wealthy patron, where a sexual relationship would be the norm. In exchange, the danna pays the geisha’s expenses, which could be considerable. It was a sort of formalised mistress, though rarely with any kind of emotional attachment.
The book focuses mostly on Sayuri’s childhood and adolescence learning to be a geisha under the tutelage of Mameha (her “older sister” the name given to an apprentice’s mentor). This involves a host of challenges, not least of which is how to deal with Hatsumomo, an older geisha who lives in Sayuri’s okiya (the geisha boarding house where they both live) and who is determined to cause Sayuri misery and embarrass her at every turn. At a young age, Sayuri’s life is changed by a chance encounter with the Chairman, a wealthy businessman. Their instant connection sparks her determination to make the best of the situation she finds herself in and become a successful geisha, so that she may see him again. As she grows into adulthood and circumstances conspire against her, she begins to fear that their relationship will never be what she would like.
Golden has written the novel as though an elderly Sayuri, now living in New York, is dictating her memoirs. In truth, the decision to write the story this way plays little part, except for comments here and there where Sayuri explains something to the reader. Perhaps the book’s greatest triumph is that it made me want to learn more about geisha. I’m sure Golden would be pleased with that!