Downer begins with the story of her embarkation on the quest to write this book, unashamedly and amusingly confessing her own mistakes and misconceptions when trying to access the geisha world, understandably well defended by every subtle barrier of etiquette against the exotifying and fetishising tendencies of western journalists. Eventually, perseverance and cake grant her both insight and cautious welcomes, and the real story begins.
This strategy of creating the ambiance of the present geisha world, alive in modern Japan and perpetuated by people with very diverse lives and interests, is the perfect preface to the history of love, pleasure, courtesans and geisha in Japan, because it plants the seed of critical consciousness and empathy with the characters in that story as people like ourselves, rather than exotic, magical, otherworldly beings.
Although it's a romantic, maybe even a bit breathless, history, it's very woman-centred and Downer successfully creates empathy with women finding ways to survive and flourish in a changing but always very patriarchal society. She laces her beautifully written narrative with contemporary literary quotations and comments that reveal attitudes and preoccupations of the day.
Progressing into the present, the story gradually fleshes out into a substantial, integrated account of geisha culture in Japan, thoroughly researched and lucidly written by a woman acting as nearly as possible as participant observer. Westerners' interest in geisha is undoubtedly rooted in stereotypical views of Japan (hence the defensiveness that initially made Downer's project difficult). Although this book exists to feed that interest, and although it is written by a westerner, it works against exotification and orientalist othering by constantly prioritising the voices and experiences of the geisha and their adjuncts. In my opinion it is well worth reading by anyone interested in women's history.