Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of Chiyo, a young girl who lives in a small fishing village called Yoroido in 1930’s Japan. There she lives with her older sister Satsu, her elderly father and her terminally ill mother. Her father is unable to care for both his girls and his wife, and so gives both daughters to Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Tanaka promptly takes the girls to Kyoto, where Chiyo is sold to an okiya (geisha house) in Gion, where she is to be trained as a geisha. At the okiya she meets Mrs. Nitta (“Mother”) and Granny, mistresses of the okiya, a fellow trainee whom Chiyo nicknames “Pumpkin”, and Hatsumomo, the resident geisha and sole source of income for the okiya.
At first Chiyo wishes for nothing more than to escape the okiya, find her sister Satsu (who was sold to a brothel), and return to her family in Yoroido. After a failed escape attempt results in a broken arm, she is met with more bad news; her sister escaped without her, and both of her parents have passed away. With no place for her but the Nitta okiya, her lot in life becomes a lifetime of servitude as a maid; Mother refuses to invest more money in Chiyo’s training, seeing her now as a bad investment.
A chance encounter with the wealthy and kind Chairman gives Chiyo hope; she sees the encounter as a sign that she wasn’t meant to become a geisha as a goal unto itself, but as a means toward the Chairman. The rest of the novel follows Chiyo through her eventual geisha training, her debut and early life as a geisha, the closing of the geisha districts due to World War II, her life during World War II, and the post-war re-opening of the geisha districts, with her ultimate goal always being the Chairman.
Despite being a work of fiction, Memoirs of a Geisha was a well researched and relatively detailed novel. In fact, the author, Arthur Golden, was sued in 2001 for breach of contract and defamation of character after publicly acknowledging Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he interviewed for background information while writing the novel. Apparently Iwasaki had agreed to speak with Golden, and violate the geisha “code of silence”, only if the interview was kept confidential.
Of course, part of the reason he was sued also has to do with some artistic liberties he took. The most controversial liberty was with “mizuage”, the coming of age ceremony where the transition from maiko (apprentice geisha) to full fledged geisha is made. In Memoirs of a Geisha it is a portrayed as a financial arrangement, where the maiko’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. As Memoirs of a Geisha was based heavily on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, and parallels her career as a geisha, readers would incorrectly assume that Iwasaki had prostituted herself as a young woman.
I found some aspects of the novel lacking, however. For instance, Chiyo’s lifetime dream of being with the Chairman is a little creepy, if you think about it. She spends her entire life plotting to be with a man that she met for maybe 15 minutes, when she was 12? That goes a little beyond infatuation, if you ask me. About halfway through, the novel begins to lose some steam; from World War II on, the story seems a bit more bland and distant. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be an intentional reflection of life after World War II, or if the author started losing interest and was simply trying to wrap up the story.
Overall, I think Memoirs of a Geisha is a decent novel, despite some flaws. While it does take liberties with aspects of the life of geisha, it IS a novel; I would recommend Iwasaki’s autobiography, published as Geisha, A Life in the US and Geisha of Gion in the UK for those interested in a more accurate version.