27 May 2012

Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka

Have been so busy writing a column and book reviews, have hardly had time to post, but want to keep you up to date on great reading...

National Book Award nominee Julie Otsuka has published a second novel that, like her first, “When the Emperor was Divine” is a slim volume that packs a huge punch. “The Buddha in the Attic” is further example of how powerful a story can be told with few words, and in this case, more like a prose poem.
Told in a first person plural voice, no mean feat of storytelling, the narration represents the many women imported from Japan to San Francisco as what were called “picture brides” at the turn of the 20th century. Although told as if one, we come to understand each individual experience, some horrific, all fascinating. The women of this novel arrived to provide companionship to countryman who had come to build bridges and railroads or mine the land. They were completely misled about what to expect, from the aged photos of men no longer young to lifestyles in America. The learned quickly to expect the unexpected.
“We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on 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 translucent, and after three days they died.”
This little novel tells a tale repeatedly told over centuries of immigration to America, a tale perhaps still being told. From the farthest locales, they come to improve their lot in life, to make a better life for their children, to build memories of which they can be proud. However,
from their first long painful journey on a trans-Pacific boat with few amenities, these women bond and share their hopes and expectations, most of which are instantly dashed.
Their tales of hardship and woe are told as if the pieces of quilt sewn together into one larger image. The husbands they were promised are not at all as presented and their lives in America nothing like they imagined and even harder work then they experienced in Japan.
“They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands. Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat… They said our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased… We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives.”
In the end, their families would be interned during WWII as potentially dangerous to their American neighbors, and as a final blow, their children reject their Asian heritage in favor of American pop culture.
The truth of their lives is disturbing and moving, the poetry of the language and the strength of the protagonists’ spirits absolutely beautiful to read. Definitely worth your time and also an excellent book group selection.