September 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is a short novel about a group of Japanese women who travel to the United States to marry men they have never met.  It chronicles the women's lives from their time on the ship, gossiping and comparing photographs of their fiancées, until decades later when they are faced with internment during World War II.  The women come from different parts of Japan, some from the big cities and others from small villages, and on the boat their differences seem to divide them.  Yet once they land in America, their lives are shaped by the same disappointments and disruptions. 

There are no main characters in The Buddha in the Attic; instead, the novel is narrated in the first person plural and the entire group of women speaks and reflects as one.  Without distinct characters to cling onto, the style is at first a bit jarring.  But as the novel moves forward, it lulls the reader with its rhythmic prose, and the lack of individual characters comes to seem unimportant.  Otsuka divides the book into several sections, sorted by theme ("First Night", "Whites", "Traitors").  The chapter entitled "Babies" begins like this:
We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat.  We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shackson the coldest nights of the year.  We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and transluscent, and after three days they died (55).
There are many sections like this, with the sentence structure repeating until each woman's experience has been told.  In fact, the "We gave birth" section goes on for six whole pages - in just one paragraph.  This gets overwhelming at times, but it also creates a collage effect, layering in each woman's story until it becomes a whole. 

Otsuka has acheived something remarkable with The Buddha in the Attic.  What from the outside looks like a small book opens up to reveal the complex story of Japanese immigrants in the first half of the 20th century as they face culture shock and discrimination.  Recommended for a quick, well-written read. 

The Buddha in the Attic © Julie Otsuka and Knopf/Borzoi Books, 2011. 

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