WHAT’S PLAYING: Rednex “Cotton Eyed Joe”
The story follows the life of a young Japanese girl, Chiyo, who is sold to a geisha house during the Great Depression. Because of her unusual grey eyes and intelligence, she manages to climb to the top of Japanese society as the celebrated geisha and dancer, Sayuri. When Sayuri loses her glamorous lifestyle amid the devastation of World War II, she must call upon her beauty and intelligence to find her way to independence and true love.
Golden does a brilliant job of bringing WWII era Japan to life, paying particular attention to the nuances of Japanese culture. Vivid images and subtle description draws the reader into the world of the geisha, a world of tradition, ritual, rivalries, and politics. One can’t help but follow Sayuri on her quest to become a geisha and find true love.
The most amazing thing is how Golden, an American male, manages to portray the life of a Japanese geisha. He captures the emotions of his characters perfectly while describing Japanese life with a genuine and eloquent voice.
There is a minor downside. The story bogs down slightly sometimes due to the meticulous level of detail Golden uses in describing rituals and defining numerous Japanese terms. Still, you can’t help but cheer for Chiyo/Sayuri as she uses her brains more than her beauty to make an independent life for herself.
Bottom line, this is a brilliant debut novel.
Favorite line (image): “We watched the flame burn through the cord, and the lantern came floating down, until the wind caught it again and rolled it through the air right toward us with a trial of gold dust streaking the sky. The ball of fire seemed to settle on the ground, but then my mother and I watched as it rose up on the current of the wind, floating straight for us. I felt my mother release me, and then all at once she threw her arms into the fire to scatter it. For a moment we were both awash in sparks and flames; but then the shreds of fired drifted into the trees and burned out, and no one – not even my mother – was hurt.”
What I learned: Do your homework. When I think about the amount of research that must have gone into writing this novel, it boggles my mind. But this is exactly the level of detail I should strive for in my own writing. I tend to focus so intently on things like plot, structure, and character development, that I neglect setting and description. This book shows just how important setting can be. Japan is just as much of a character as the novel’s protagonist. Whenever I find myself discounting the importance of world building, I’ll revisit this story for some much-needed perspective.