The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Several people recommended this book to me, so I was excited to start reading it once it was my turn to check it out from the library.  I didn’t know anything about the author, Julie Otsuka, but have since learned that she has a previous novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, for which The Buddha in the Attic can be seen as a kind of prequel.  Both books feature Japanese immigrants to the U.S., with The Buddha in the Attic telling the collective (hi)story of a group of “picture brides”–Japanese mail-order brides who came to the U.S. in the early 1900s–and When the Emperor Was Divine picking up where this story leaves off in time to focus on a family in the internment camps during WWII.

From Goodreads:

Julie Otsuka’s long awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago. 

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.

In language that has the force and the fury of poetry, Julie Otsuka has written a singularly spellbinding novel about the American dream.

From the beginning, it’s obvious that The Buddha in the Attic is not a typical novel, if it can even be called that.  It’s the only book that I can remember reading that doesn’t use either a first-person or third-person singular point of view.  Instead, it uses the plural versions of both, so that the narrator is in fact a group of people who share a common experience, even as each go through it in their own individual way.  It is their story, and they tell it as one, these women who make the journey from their homeland in Japan to marry strangers in a strange land.

In the eight different sections, we see what is shared–the first nights with their new husbands, their introduction to the U.S. and their working lives, the birth of their children who are neither of the old country nor the new, but someplace in between.  Finally, we see how their hard-earned peace is shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbour and the U.S.’s entry into war against Japan, and the consequences that will have on Japanese-Americans.

But we also see how each person’s experience is different, how some manage to rise above their rocky beginnings and make a good life for themselves, while others never make it.  We see how some learn to love their stranger husbands, while others’ relationships end in disaster.  We see the person inside the collective “we”–the “one of us,” to use the book’s term for the individual.

Because of the way the book is written, it almost reads like poetry, with a repetitive structure and a rhythm to it.  It is also quite short for a novel, only 144 pages, so I could have easily sat down and read the whole book at one sitting. The writing flows easily, even as the distinctive details kept my attention as a reader.  I really felt like I got a feel for what these women had lived through and who they were.  It’s a beautiful book.

One of my favorite aspects of the story was the shift that occurs in the last section of the book, which details what happens after the Japanese-Americans are sent to the internment camps.  The point of view suddenly changes, and the narrator, the “we,” becomes not the immigrants but the American people of the communities that they have left behind.  We get their view of how the absence of the Japanese-Americans has affected their lives, as well as that of their children, and their thoughts and feeling on the situation.  The shift is subtle but so powerful.

I would highly recommend The Buddha in the Attic to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly U.S. history, or anyone who might have a special interest in this time period.  I’m definitely going to be checking out Otsuka’s other novel as well.

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6 thoughts on “The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

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