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This is the true story of story of Sayo Masuda, who talks about her life up to the age of 32 (when the book was published; however there is an afterword, which explains more about Masuda’s life after publication).  Masuda explains how as a six year old she was sent by her poverty stricken family to work as nursemaid in a harsh family.  At the age of 12, she was then sold to a geisha house, where she started her training to be a geisha.  I came to this book after developing an interest in the geisha life, due to reading Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, which was a fictionalised account of the life of a geisha.  Masuda’s autobiography, which was published in the 50s, tells of a harsher and crueler life than that depicted in Golden’s book.  Masuda explains how for some, there is a very faint line between geisha and prostitutes (although there is a line).  She also tells about the treatment that geisha receive at the hands of certain customers and the geisha house to which they belong.

This is not a long book – less than 200 pages – but it tells the story of Masuda’s life, without it feeling hurried.  Masuda had never been formally taught to read or write when she wrote her book, and as a result, the book is written in an almost childlike – although never childish – manner.  (The translation is excellent too; the translater explains how both she and the editor wanted to keep the spirit of Masuda’s manuscript).  Masuda tells of some horrible situations without ever seeming self pitying – although it is impossible not to feel compassion for her.  Her strong spirit really comes through.

This is a compelling insight into a woman’s life and another culture, and a highly recommend read for anybody with an interest in geisha.

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I loved this book, and wish that I had read it earlier. It tells the life story of Chiyo, who is sold as a child and despite a very tough beginning with her new ‘family’, becomes a hugely successful geisha named Sayuri. It is set with WWII as a backdrop, and the book also charts how the war affected not only the geisha trade, but life in Japan as a whole. We also learn how through Sayuri’s life, she craves the love and affection of one man in particular, from when she was a child to when she was a woman. Life is not easy at first for Sayuri. Forced to leave her family behind, she is treated like dirt by the people with whom she goes to live, and the older geisha Hatsumommo in particular, makes her life extremely difficult.

It is narrated by Sayuri, and it is easy to forget that this is not an autobiography, but rather a fictional (albeit factually correct) account of this woman’s life. It is difficult to believe that an American man wrote this book. Sayuri is a very sympathetic character, even if some of her actions are hard for a Westerner living in the 21st century to relate to – I found myself rooting for her the whole way through.  She was well drawn and utterly believable – as were all the characters, including Sayuri’s nemesis Hatsumommo.  Ironically, the one character who I felt was not as well depicted as the others was Chairman Ken, who Sayuri fell in love with.  I loved Mameha – another geisha, who took Sayuri under her wing.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive, and it really immersed me in the time and place where the book was set.  Some fantastic prose, which was a joy to read purely for the sake of reading it.

Overall, this was a fabulous book, which is also hugely informative about the traditions and rituals involved in becoming a geisha. As a result of reading it, I have ordered three non-fiction books about the history and life of geisha.

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