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When I searched for good books like Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997) I came across a fair few books about geisha life and Japanese culture, and while I’m actually pretty interested in both, they’re not quite what I had in mind.
But I knew exactly which books I wanted to share with other readers in my situation.
Memoirs of a Geisha was the kind of book I wanted to devour in one sitting – a novel that charts a fascinating life inside a tough world.
If you’re looking for an alternative, I think these books come pretty close.
Anchee Min’s two-part account of the life of China’s last empress takes us inside the Forbidden City.
In Empress Orchid, we meet a poor girl from a hard-working family who have the chance to promote their daughter to greatness as an imperial consort.
At points, the brutality behind such an elegant lifestyle is horrifying – if the novel was entirely fictional, you could criticise the author for going to extremes.
Mineko Iwesawa was interviewed by Arthur Golden as a source for his novel, under a promise of anonymity.
She later took him to court, alleging that she had been openly linked to both the truths she shared and fictional events.
In her own biography, the former geisha emphasises the differences between the sexualised portrayal of her profession and the reality – and in later years it was a glamorous reality.
Covering the early life of Catherine of Aragon, or Infanta Catalina, Philippa Gregory recounts the princess’s training for a reign that would never materialise.
After the death of her first husband, a second chance materialises – marriage to the future King Henry VIII.
Like Arthur Golden’s novel, The Constant Princess spans years of the heroine’s life, and in a similar way, we’re following a heroine who is trying to reshape her life in spite of a rigid structure.
Later adapted for younger readers, Falling Leaves tells the true story of the author’s life in wartime China.
Despite a privileged upbringing, like the heroine of Memoirs of a Geisha she was subject to hardship and ill treatment.
It doesn’t shy away from harsh realities, and though the book isn’t too long, it spans so many years that it generates the feeling of an epic.
One of these books is set more recently, the other much further back in the past and is completely fictional, but I couldn’t put either of them down.
Set in the New York of the past few decades, Girl in Translation follows an immigrant girl who finds herself caught between American life, the Chinese community’s expectations and her family’s extreme poverty.
Like Memoirs, this is a fictional book grounded in real life. The author herself grew up in poverty, part of an immigrant family working in Chinatown’s factories.
At times the heroine’s life seemed impossibly difficult, but as in Memoirs, the story is infused with moments of hope.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up this book, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.
In 17th Century France, travelling dancer and natural rebel Juliette (is she a past incarnation of Vianne, I wonder?) finds her path intertwined with a dangerous fellow performer.
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, has herself noted that there’s more darkness in her books than she is given credit for, so while you shouldn’t expect Holy Fools to be a heart rending epic on the scale of Memoirs of a Geisha, I think you’ll find it hard to put down.
For me, part of what makes these books so compelling is that they take us through so much of the characters’ lives.
Not only does it allow us to see into a different world, it lets us discover it with a heroine who is learning to understand her own life.
Looking for more movies like the adaptation?
I just love Paola’s suggestions, and I think you will too.
Do you have any great recommendations for books to read if you like Memoirs of a Geisha?
Help other readers to find them by sharing your picks in the comments.
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