Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
(Vintage Books, $14, PG) ISBN 0-6797-8158-7
*****
Memoirs of a Geisha is a first person account of the reminiscences of a geisha during the 1930's and 1940's. An engrossing account of the rules and rituals of geishas, it sets aside one misconception after another. Perhaps even more remarkable is that the author is male, American and writing the story in the 1990's.

Nine-year-old Chiyo is sold by her father to a geisha house in the Gion District of Kyoto. This transaction makes her an indentured servant to this okiya (house) for life. Chiyo is a remarkably beautiful child with startling, grayish-blue eyes. Not understanding what has transpired, she does realize that an opportunity to become a geisha is several steps up the social ladder from the loftiest expectations of her lot as a fisherman's daughter. Her beauty antagonizes vicious Hatsumomo, the resident geisha, and she finds herself in trouble constantly.

When Chiyo attempts to escape and fails, the okiya owner angrily consigns her to the fate of being a maid for life. Before she is 12, Chiyo realizes the opportunity she has let slip. One day she encounters a man known only as "The Chairman," who will forever change her life. He is the chairman of Japan's largest utility and perhaps the first man who has ever extended pure kindness to her. She falls hopelessly in love with him.

Miraculously (really through the intervention of the Chairman), Mameha, one of the most beautiful and elite geishas in Gion, approaches the owner to discuss Chiyo's fate. Discreetly, she reveals she is willing to become Chiyo's "big sister," the person who launches a geisha's career. The owner, who is a greedy soul, can appreciate the value of Chiyo in this role.

Thus Chiyo, renamed Sayuri, starts geisha school. In a very disciplined and structured environment she learns to play musical instruments, dance, sing, converse and perfect the art of the tea ceremony.

The bizarre manner in which Sayuri's unrequited love finally reaches lasting fulfillment requires the understanding of Japanese tradition that the reader gleans in reading the pages of her early years. Sayuri must work within the very rigid structure of a geisha's life to even spend time with the Chairman. And he must work within the very rigid structure of his society's concept of honor to see her. This love story is perhaps more memorable because it deviates so dramatically from the usual.

The author portrays this culture with extraordinarily vivid descriptions. From the long and arduous application of the white face to the arrangement of the folds of the kimono, the visualizations are so brilliant and intense that you walk away from Memoirs of a Geisha, thinking, in the words of the chairman, that: "sometimes the things I remember are more real than the things I see."

--Thea Davis


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