Book review: Glass Geishas by Susanna Quinn

The sultry hostess clubs of Tokyo’s bustling Roppongi district are like a magnet for young western women eager to make money fast.

Monday, 2nd July 2012, 7:00 am

All a girl needs to do to earn a small fortune is flirt with the city’s rich businessmen. It’s as easy as that... isn’t it?

Susanna Quinn’s dark debut novel takes us deep into the murky world of sex, drink and drugs in a gripping story based on her own experiences as a hostess in the grim underbelly of Tokyo, a cosmopolitan city where East meets West in a strange, and sometimes dangerous, cultural collision.

A former journalist, Quinn’s fast-moving and well-researched cautionary tale features characters from every level of the hostess industry – the naive western girls, the mama-sans who make a living from them, the traditional geishas and the ruthless gangsters who are ready to prey on all types of vulnerable women.

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A group of narrative voices, all cleverly linked as the story unfolds, adds depth and insight to the dramatic events as well as providing an air of mystery and some original twists and turns.

When Steph arrives in Tokyo from England to join Julia and Annabel, two old school friends who reckon to be making mountains of money out of their hostess jobs, it all seems quite an adventure as well as the perfect solution to raise quick cash for a college course.

But Steph soon discovers that Julia is just a shadow of her former self. Aloof, secretive and aggressive, her work as a hostess has left her grey-skinned and dead-eyed. ‘It’s like she’s been body-snatched,’ observes Steph.

Even worse, Annabel has simply disappeared and no-one seems to care that she’s gone. As Steph searches for Annabel using her friend’s abandoned journal, in which she admits to being scared by this ‘mad place,’ she is lured into gritty, glamorous Roppongi .

There she meets Mama-san Tanaka, a charismatic and powerful hostess club owner ravaged by age and chemotherapy, who has worked in the sex industry all her life and is currently selling her story – a seedy account of abuse, sexual exploitation and fight for survival – to a British journalist.

Steph is also taken under the wing of kindly but forthright ‘Mrs Kimono,’ a one-time traditional geisha, who warns the English girl to stay strong and wary. ‘Glass,’ she says, ‘that’s what you’ll become, see-through.’

But the longer Steph stays in Roppongi, the harder it is to turn back. She must discover what’s happened to Annabel, or risk selling a part of herself that she’ll never get back...

Quinn’s character-driven novel puts the spotlight firmly on the shadowy hostess industry to which young women are lured by the promise of money and excitement, but which can so quickly ensnare them in a perilous web of vice.

Intriguing, atmospheric and bleak, Glass Geishas is a tale of our times.

(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)