The Buddha in the Attic : A Review

The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published by Fig Tree
Reviewed by Jessica Patient

Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a beautiful, lyrical short novel about the American dream from the immigrant perspective. The novel opens with a group of mail order brides on a boat from Japan heading for San Francisco and their new futures. Their new husbands greet them at the dock. There is hesitation and a stab of realisation that their husbands and lives will not be the same as the promises made through the letters and photographs.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins.”
The first-person plural narrative aids in the galloping pace of the novel and the rhythm of the book makes it an addictive read. By using group narration, the reader gets to see their experience through collective eyes. Some of the wives end up picking crops in dusty fields and suffocating heat, others end up washing clothes or in brothels. A few end up working in rich American homes as servants and cleaners. Most are disappointed with their husbands and end up running away from them, having affairs or ignoring their husband's demands. Each sentence gives a brief window into their lives: the individual stories happening off the page and forming in the reader’s imagination.

Otsuka uses precise and rich rhythmic language to create a powerful and evocative story. The authentic voices capture their trials and triumphs. Collectively, they struggle to get to grips with the new culture, new language and new attitudes as they settle into family life and try not to lose touch with their roots. They have to battle against isolation, disappointment in their husbands, and homesickness.

“In January we were ordered to register with the authorities and turn over all items of contraband to our local police.”

The reader follows the characters right up to bombing of Pearl Harbour and the aftermath as they are forced out of their homes and into camps. They are once again pulled away from their lives and made to start afresh. Otsuka opens the reader’s eyes to treatment of Japanese people living in America at the time of World War II.

“The Japanese have disappeared from our town.”

The Buddha in the Attic is stunning and deserves to become a modern classic.

1 comment:

Grace said...

Sounds like an amazing book!