It may seem like an obvious way to open a recommendation post like this, but oh well: the movie did not do this book justice. Memoirs of a Geisha wasn't a terrible movie, but it made Arthur Golden's novel look like less than it is. Alright, now that I have that out of the way, I will explain why.
The novel tells the story of Sayuri (born Chiyo) who was, it seems, sold by her father into the Kyoto sex trade. In fact, the only thing that saves her from the fate of her older sister (who is forced into a truly horrific life as a prostitute) is that she has grey eyes, which makes her interesting to look at. So, Chiyo (who doesn't become Sayuri until she becomes an actual geisha) is sold to the Nitta okiya, a geisha house that is run by the Nitta sisters and home to geisha Hatsumomo.
Chiyo is miserable. Hatsumomo is horrible to her, she is worked very hard and, when she reaches of age, she is forced to go to geisha school to learn the arts of tea service, pageantry and music. Being a geisha is mostly not about sex (although it is very much about sexuality) so there are many things she must learn, even if she doesn't want to. Her one bright spot is that one day, after crying in the street, a man comes up to her and, offering her his handkerchief, comforts her. She doesn't know right away who the man is, but she becomes infatuated and he becomes her goal.
As Golden builds this plot around Chiyo – including her geisha training and her relationship with her beautiful geisha mentor Mameha – he subtly explains the world of pre-WWII Kyoto to the reader. Of course, many things are new to Chiyo, who is learning to be a geisha just as the reader is learning about geishas, but there is also a lot of information about social standing, honour, politics and women's rights running as undercurrents through the various scenes. The world he writes about is rich and gritty and very realistic, which adds a huge amount to the story of a girl who, in many ways, had the life of many girls.
My favourite part of the novel is not actually set in Kyoto at all. Although Chiyo's relationship with the chairman (the nice man who comforted her) and his friend Nobu becomes a central plot line and is very well teased out, the part I like most is set during the war. Sayuri (because she is now a well known and respected geisha) leaves the city to live in the countryside. The war is not going well and Kyoto has been firebombed multiple times. So she leaves and goes to live with a kimono maker, dying silks and learning a bit of his trade (a wonderful addition to the story, since the kimono geishas wore were incredibly important in their trade).
The job ruins Sayuri's hands and changes her appearance. She returns to the city after the war as a geisha much changed by her experience. Eventually, she leaves Japan for New York City, where she lives with the chairman and, ostensibly, writes her memoirs.
There aren't many contemporary novels that take a reader from the characters early childhood right to their death. To write like that and make a novel compelling, every step the character makes has to ring true, because the reader has known them for the character's entire life. Golden achieves this, but also allows Chiyo/Sayuri to grow as a woman, which involves occasionally awkward or out-of-character scenes. Golden winds you into her life, making her decisions as important to you as they are to her, and he does it all in prose that is both straightforward and vivid.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel about love and war and culture and the accepted artifice of femininity, written as though it were non-fiction. It's a love story with more culturally serious undertones, which makes it a good book to transition into autumn with.
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
First published in 1997 (cover image shown from Vintage edition)