Buddha in the Attic – Book Review

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. – from Buddha in the Attic, page 1 –

It is the early part of the twentieth century and young girls from Japan are arriving in San Francisco as “picture brides.” Their husbands have been chosen by a matchmaker in Japan, selected only by a photo and vague promises in scrawled letters. For the girls on the boat, their futures seem bright. But nothing is ever really as it seems.

Unfolding over many years and written in the collective first person plural narrative, Julie Otsuka reveals the lives of these young women as they meet their husbands for the first time,  bear children and find work in their communities. Culminating in the bigoted years of World War II when thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up and torn from their homes, Buddha in the Attic is a powerful look at one aspect of  the immigrant experience in America.

There was talk of a list. Some people being taken away in the middle of the night. A banker who went to work and never came home. A barber who disappeared during his lunch break. A few fishermen who had gone missing. Here and there, a boardinghouse, raided. A business, seized. A newspaper shut down. – from Buddha in the Attic, page 81 –

Otsuka’s decision to use first person plural as her narrative voice is unusual and haunting. Instead of an individual point of view, the novella presents the collective perspective of a community joined by ancestry and common experience. What Otsuka does well is tease out individuals from the group, sharing their differences and then pulling them back together as one voice. The result is a story which builds to a powerful conclusion. More than just a story of one person, this is a story of a generation of immigrant women who arrived in America with hope and discovered the reality was not exactly what they expected.

In the end, the voices of these women disappear and are replaced by the collective voice of the community they left behind.

The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. Their mailboxes have begun to overflow. Unclaimed newspapers litter their sagging front porches and gardens. Abandoned cars sit in their driveways. Thick knotty weeds are sprouting up through their lawns. In their backyards the tulips are wilting. Stray cats wander. Last loads of laundry still cling to the line. In one of their kitchens – Ei Saito’s – a black telephone rings and rings.  – from Buddha in the Attic, page 115 –

This is a book which grows more powerful after the final page has been turned. I have found myself thinking of these women, their stories, their community, their ultimate fate…and their voices echo in my head. It is hard to turn away from them. I was left with the feeling that the community they inhabited is less now in their absence…and I think this is, perhaps, the message which Otsuka wanted her readers to get.

This slim book delivers on every level. It should be required reading in history classes.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Join the discussion at Bookies Too from June 1-15, 2012.

Awards for this book:

  • 2012 PEN/Faulkner winner
  • 2011 National Book Award finalist
  • 2011 New York Times Most Notable book

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    • Bekah on May 25, 2012 at 07:07

    I honestly cried reading this book – the tears interfered with the text. I know the towns the families were removed from – I live here. When the names were ticked off in those chapters I couldn’t help myself – it hurt my heart. That “collective first person plural” was so powerful – it almost puts the reader into the scene.

    Otsuka’s prior book, When the Emperor Was Divine, takes the story into the next phase – lire at the camps. It’s fine to read them out of publishing sequence because then they fit in chronological sequence. The style is not quite the same – it’s third person but the protagonists are never named. I had to wait a couple months before reading it but when I did it was well worth it.

    Thanks for the review, Wendy.

      • Wendy on May 25, 2012 at 07:12

      Bekah: I agree – it was so moving…I have never read a book in this point of view and I think it was an excellent choice by Otsuka. I need to read the Emperor Was Devine…thanks for the recommendation. Can’t wait to discuss this one.

  1. I’m really excited to read this one, and the unusual perspective seems like it’d be really really powerful. Great review, Wendy!

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:52

      Thanks, Andi…I think you would love this book. I hope you get a chance to read it.

  2. Sooooo glad you loved this one, too, Wendy. It was a 5 star read for me last year. So excellent. I was so surprised when this wasn’t on the Orange longlist.

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:52

      Michelle: Yup – should have made the Orange Prize (at least the long list!).

  3. I’ve been interested in this book ever since Eleanor Brown said it’s one of 3 written in first person plural that came out in 2011. It sounds like a must read.

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:52

      Kathy: I do think it is a must read – wonderful book.

  4. I really need to find time to read this!!

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:53

      Kailana: Yes you do!

  5. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:54

      Vasilly: It was really memorable wasn’t it?

    • Amy on May 27, 2012 at 11:26

    I haven’t read this book yet but I loved your review, Wendy. I have read a few books that touched on the photo brides and the rounding up of the Japanese but it was just enough to pique my interest in those topics. I really like the way Ms. Osaka gives us the stories of 3 women and tells about how things go in their lives for years. I can’t imagine what life is like for these women and I’m really looking forward to reading this book.

      • Wendy on May 28, 2012 at 06:55

      Amy: Thank you! The novel is really about multiple women (not just three)…which is astonishing that she was able to include so many voices in such a slim book and do it exceptionally well. I hope you’ll be as moved by the book as I was.

  6. I really loved this one too. I’m also eager to read Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine. Glad you loved it too, Wendy.

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