Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is the story of Japanese picture brides who came to California in the early years of the twentieth century. But forget whatever image of a novel that sentence conjures up for you. Otsuka's book is unlike any other novel I can recollect.

What makes the book so unusual? Otsuka made the unusual choice of first person plural as the voice. While this is the third book I've read this year that employed first person plural, this is the first case in which it felt like the right choice. The way in which Otsuka uses first person plural also means that there is no individual character development; rather, we learn about the group. Similarly, while Otsuka arranges the book in chronological order, it does not have a plot in the traditional sense. In each of eight sections, Otsuka presents what I can only describe as a rush of sentences about how various women experienced the topic of the section. For example, the chapter "Babies" begins with the following passage:

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. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin.

Otsuka ends the section titled "Whites" with a torrent of questions that begins:

. . . without us, what would they do? Who would pick the strawberries from their fields? Who would get the fruit down from their trees? Who would wash their carrots? Who would scrub their toilets? Who would mend their garments? Who would iron their shirts? Who would fluff their pillows?

It is a measure of the hardships these women experienced that the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II seems not so much a separate tragedy as a piece with the rest of their lives. However, Otsuka also turns our perception of that event on its head by writing the final section of the book from the perspective of white residents of the West Coast communities whose Japanese residents were interned.

I doubt I would enjoy reading too many books written in the style Otsuka uses here, but I admire her innovation in writing a novel about a group of women and their experiences as immigrants to the United States.

Favorite passage:
. . . the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.

1 comment:

  1. This poetic book is written from the point of view of a group of Japanese women who immigrated to the US to marry men they'd never met in order to better their lives. It is a tale of heartache and triumph, love and hatred, community and isolation, culture and not belonging, kindnes and cruelty. It's a story of survival, beautifully written in prose.