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Memoirs of a Geisha Memoirs of a Geisha

Arthur Golden
ISBN 9780099771517 (0099771519)
Vintage, 1998
£7.99

Category: Fiction
Subcategory: General

I read this book as a dare from my best female friend, who told me that she had yet to find a man who liked it. Even a gay she works with hated it. Having generally heard good reports of this novel, and noted that it is included in a list of eminent titles such as Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (amongst others) for a new Reading Guide Edition, I wondered what could be the problem with it. Is it chicklit? Does it include twenty five pages of instructions on a good tea ceremony? Is it just plain boring with no plot or character development?

I am extremely pleased I took up the dare. Following the life story of a geisha from just before she was sold by her parents, to her old age, the core is taken up with her rivalry with another geisha during the period of her apprenticeship. It takes a while to get to that point, but the dynamics of human relationships once you get there easily drew me through the book, and by the time that section had finished I was over two thirds of the way through.

Along the way, I'd learnt a lot about the training and life of a geisha, something that has virtually no points of contact for me as a male WASP. Perhaps some people would find this uninteresting, though I thoroughly enjoyed these sections; the geisha's 'voice' has a wonderful way of picking out the pertinent and fascinating snippets of information to flesh out the descriptions. But at the same time, it contains so many elements that transcend a particular culture. These geisha are portrayed as catty and bitchy, quite willing to gossip about (and play mean practical jokes on) one another. It made no difference that the characters have their faces painted white and are wrapped up in intricate clothing; this is the stuff of any story. Interpersonal dynamics, bringing down your enemy, discovering hidden motives of people you thought were your friends. The heroine is no saint; she certainly makes several foolish mistakes, and her willingness to admit this makes her an interesting narrator. Combined with a great ability to describe scenery and clothing, these different elements all combined to make a great read.

If you're fascinated by Japan and things Japanese, I'm sure you've already read this. If you love biographies, you'll want to read this. But if you're just a person — male or female — who loves to read great fiction, you should give this a go too. This is no chicklit, and the admission from the geisha that she dislikes the tea is the sort of lovely titbit this book excels in.

John Wilks, October 2005

Dr John G F Wilks is the Director of Open Learning at London School of Theology, Reviews Editor for Evangelical Quarterly and author of Scripture Union's Deeper Encounter Study Series.

Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.

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