THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC
published by Knopf Publishing 2011
by Julie Otsuka
Opening the cover of ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ the reader is taken to the Pacific ocean in the early 1900’s, to a ship, bound for California from the coast of Japan. On board are a group of Japanese women heading to a better life in America. Their hopes wrapped up in the promises from a few well written letters and their dreams tied to photos of the handsome well to do young men who would be waiting on the dock for them when they arrive. The novel begins with the women comparing their soon to be husbands…
They were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished. Their chins were strong. Their posture, good. Their noses were straight and high. They looked like our brothers and fathers back home, only better dressed, in gray frock coats and fine Western three piece suits.
And it is only after their arrival at the dock do they learn the hard truth of their courageous decision to make this journey. Their hopes have been shredded, and their dreams fade. They’ve been lied to. The letters were not written by their husbands to be, and their bankers, traders, business men, are actually farmers, gardeners, laborers with no wealth and no fine home. The photos much like the letters, were of the men twenty years ago, or of a friend, or perhaps even a stranger.
Now left in the new world, with a man they know little about, a small chest from home carrying their few possessions, and the words of wisdom from their mothers to guide them…
Hold your teacup with both hands, stay out of the sun, never say more than you have to…A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist….Walk like the city, not like the farm!
…they begin a hard new life in America and learn some harsh realities; they will work hard every day and be chastised when they do not. They will raise families and bear children that may not appreciate the ways of their homeland. They will face prejudice and ignorance from the American people. Finally as the years pass and the world is rocked by the Second World War, these women show a strength of character that surpasses even that of the men they have shared their lives with.
This is Julie Otsuka’s follow up novel (novella) to her first work “When The Emperor Was Divine”, and almost qualifies as a prequel to that piece. Written in the first person plural, it may be a new experience to some readers to discover this particular piece has no main character, and does not follow one particular family or individual. It is a collective telling of the Japanese story in America and what you find between the covers of this book is pure brilliance with a new style of writing.
This book was a surprise for me in many ways. Firstly, like many of my reads this year, it was not something I would have chosen for myself, however being the Book Club’s choice for June, I opted to read it and see where it took me, and I am happy to report that I found a rare gem of a book that will be making a permanent home on my bookshelf on my next trip to the local bookstore. The larger surprises for me were the style of writing the author made use of and the story itself.
The writing did not follow any format that I had experienced previous to opening the cover of this book, it is told in the first person plural and does not offer the reader a main character, or a specific story to follow, and I admit a few pages in I was admittedly confused as to where this book was heading, mainly as it seemed to be lacking the main character to which I normally attach…
A few pages later I began to see that the “main character” is the “we” of the book, and once adjusted to the style and layout of the story, the “we“ caught my interest and the tale of these young women from Japan began to unfold The writing is poetic in places (though not poetry) but also very straightforward, if perhaps a bit formal, yet really leaves little to the imagination. When reading the section titled “First Night” for example, I was struck by Otsuka’s ability to tell the “taking” of these young women by their husbands in a straightforward and very honest way, without any of the romantic fanciful words you‘d expect, but just straightforward, this is what happened, language.…
That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. The took us gently, but firmly and without saying a word….They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second rate rooms, at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time.
And then further into the reading you find lines such as this, and you shake your head in disbelief at the innocence lost in such a few short words…
for some of us had not been told by our mothers exactly what it was that this night would entail. I was thirteen years old and had never looked a man in the eye.
The novel carries through to the Second World War, and not to give the novel away, it is at this point that the true strength of the novel and the women who grace its pages both truly shine. The author brought me to the place I always hope to be in the final pages of any novel…wanting to know more. The courage of these young women and their efforts to survive in America, left me both interested and captivated by their story.
I recommend reading The Buddha in the Attic, it shares an all to often neglected story from American history, the writing is unique and well thought out, and I hope it will leave you walking away from it as I did, with a new appreciation for the Japanese people, their culture and some of their heroines…known as the Picture Brides.
The cover just says Japan to me. Its tasteful, not overstated or ostentatious, and gives the reader a sense of the whole novel without a lot of elements. Perfect choice for this piece. Just a simple red parasol inside a case.
Going on the Shelf! – This one is a definite must have in my library of books. I enjoyed both the experience of a different writing style, and the story offers the reader such a wealth of emotion its definitely one to read over several times. My hat is off to Otsuka on this one! Definitely one to keep and share with others! In a word Brilliant!
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Julie Otsuka, was born and raised in California. She studied as an undergraduate at Yale and received a Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia. She began writing at age 30, and has received several awards including the PEN/Faulkner Award, The Asian American Literary Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has written two novels and her work has been published in Granata, Harpers, and The Best American Short Stories of 2012.
Otsuka currently resides in New York, where she writes every day in the local cafe.
To learn more about Julie Otsuka and her work visit: http://www.julieotsuka.com