While I was packing up books in Philly, I posed the question to the BookCrossing forum of whether I should hang onto Memoirs of a Geisha and read it or just release it somewhere, since I found the movie totally boring. I received an overwhelming READ IT! from my fellow bookcrossers, so I swallowed my skepticism and did. Now I must thank everyone who told me to read it. This novel is among the best historical fiction I have read. Golden has an M.A. in Japanese history (as well as one in English), and his research skills are fully evident here. But it’s one thing to report the facts of historical research and quite another to present them woven into a compelling first-person fictional narrative that never flags in its voice or detail. Golden does a wonderful job of demystifying the world of geisha while keeping it utterly captivating. Some review I read called Golden’s writing Dickensian, but it actually reminded me of Austen more than anything else. Sayuri’s life is a string of social events and encounters that might seem trivial from the outside but are infused with meaning that we are gradually trained to interpret for ourselves as we learn the local rituals and codes of conduct. The novel creates a small world so fully realized that it’s hard to believe you haven’t actually seen it. In fact, while I usually try not to see the movie version before reading the book because one inevitably imagines the movie’s images while reading, in this case the novel’s depictions thoroughly obliterated all memory of the film from my mind. (I think a beautiful film might have been made of this book, and imagined this alternative movie as I was reading. But the movie that was actually made is bizarre in many ways—its Sayuri speaks Chinese-accented English, for example, as if to lend a bit of ill-conceived oriental fusion flavor—and simply soul-less in others.) As a narrator, Sayuri also has the keen eye and descriptive wit of an Austenian hero. Descriptions like this one made me laugh out loud:
…he had a very distinctive appearance; I’ve never seen anyone who had more trouble just lugging his face around. He kept his chin tucked up against his breastbone as though he couldn’t quite hold up his head, and he had a peculiar lower jaw that protruded so that his breath seemed to blow right up his nose.
There’s a later description of this same character which is a masterpiece of dark comedy, but as it’s a pivotal moment in the narrative, I’ll let you discover it yourself. This was really a wonderful read; thanks again to everyone who recommended it.