Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house.
We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it. –
~ Selected excerpt from goodreads
This is one of those older books that I never got around to reading at the time it was published. I remember the hype around the book and the movie that came out based on it, but at the time I hadn’t yet developed a deep interest in Japanese culture and books and so I gave this book and movie a skip.
When I saw this book in the library couple of weeks back, I remembered all the glowing reviews and picked it up. So does this book live up to the hype? Read on to find out.
I began this book with great excitement, and the first three-quarters of the book did not disappoint me. The book is packed with wonderful descriptive prose and a lot of details about the inner lives of geishas.
The story of the protagonist – Sayuri is very Cinderella-esque in style, a pretty little girl all alone in the world, sold to an okiya and tormented by her okiya mate – Hatsumomo. She meets a man called Chairman who she dreams about and falls in love with. The rest of the story deals with how she overcomes her problems and gets her happy ending.
I liked this book very much for the wonderful writing and the details of Japanese life. I am not an expert, but it seems like a lot of research has gone into this book to make it very authentic sounding. I loved how he described the geisha costumes, hair styles and make-up, the tea drinking ceremonies, the dances, their training, and their general way of life.
What was a little disappointing was the blandness of a geisha’s life. It seems all Sayuri needed to do was look pretty and serve tea. I was hoping for a little witty conversation, something which demonstrated Sayuri’s intelligence and sharp mind – something she is often commended for, but nothing like that happens. It’s all just silly flirting and I was quite disappointed with the development of Sayuri’s character.
The secondary characters though are pretty interesting and I wish they were a little more developed. Hatsumomo – Sayuri’s nemesis and her protege Pumpkin display shades of grey and I did want to know more about them and what made them tick, and especially what happens to them in the end. Nobu, one of Sayuri’s patrons is also very interesting, and so is Mameha, Sayuri’s elder sister and I wanted to know more about them all, but towards the end all these interesting people vanish into the woodwork and the focus remains on Sayuri and her chairman. And that’s where the book falters.
The story takes a very unrealistic fairy-tale like turn towards the end, and its rushed ending is entirely different from the tone of the rest of the book. I don’t mean that I don’t like a happy ending, but the way this particular happy ending was orchestrated was in quite poor taste, but that’s probably just my opinion.
So, I didn’t like the basic story, and if I read the story in a different setting, I may not have liked it at all. But I loved the wonderful historical setting in wartime Japan, the detailed commentary on the geishas, and some wonderful writing in places. These are what lifted a very ho-hum sort of story into something much more.
Overall, read this book for the lovely and unique historical setting, and the excellent writing. The story as such is a disappointment.
I read this book as part of the Japanese literature challenge that is overseen by Dolce Bellezza every year.