The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka

Graceful and skilful, a mesmerizing tale of life and all of it’s beautiful wonder.

They say big things come in small packages and this is certainly the case with The Buddha In The Attic. Condensed to a mere one hundred and nine pages you could be deceived into thinking that this book would lack substance.  But The Buddha in The Attic is proof that it’s all about quality not quantity. Bound in a beautiful rich red hardback cover and adorned with appealing artwork the book in it’s self is an object of wonder. Modestly small but with a powerful message quite like the story itself.

From the very first page Otsuka tells her story with a lyrical tone which reads as a rather hypnotic stream of prose.

Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day. And swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine

The story is a little unusual in it’s execution, rejecting the overly used 1st, second, or third person Otsuka uses a plural narrative to reflect the lives of a whole collective group of Japanese women who have left their homelands and crossed the pacific in hopes of living the American dream.

The opening of the novel is particularly touching as she deftly tunes into the private and collective fears of the girls as they prepare to meet husbands they have only seen in photographs. Some are afraid, some excited, all apprehensive and each desperate to know just how drastically their lives will change.

Will their desperate hopes be met or will their fears be confirmed?

There is something charming and innocent in the way the women and in some cases teenage girls try to foresee the path their lives will take. When Julie abruptly switches to the first meeting between wives and husband a peculiar sense of protectiveness crept into me alongside a strong desire to guard the women as they faced their wedding nights.

She then charts the immense difficulty that they each experienced in trying to fit in and become part of a culture that seems determined to reject and alienate them. They must each face the intense disappointment of realising that the men they have left their families for are not the rich sophisticated men they were promised but poor farmers and labourers struggling to discover the American dream.

Perhaps the most impressive detail of the story was Otuska’s ability to retain the individuality of each women and their own private anguish whilst writing in such an all-encompassing and collective narrative.  Her unique choice of writing seems to simultaneously represent the universal pain of a whole race faced with such animosity and alien cultures, and the particular personal experiences of a whole variety of different women.

The novel flows interminably with natural ease drifting from the early years of the women’s lives to their later life when they are mothers themselves to children who reject their culture and mock their parents ways and habits. We then move to probably the most difficult part of the novel which charts the removal of Japanese people from their neighbourhoods and homes to detention camp during the war. I had no idea that during this time the Japanese suffered such hostility and animosity.

It could be said that the novel rather disappointingly ends without us ever finding out where the Japanese were sent or what they ended up doing. But maybe this could make for an exciting sequel? Beside I feel that anymore writing and the novel would have lost it’s flow and appeal. Such a narrative can only be sustained for a certain length of time.

All in all though I loved Otsuka’s deviation away from the typical novel and found the book engaging and entrancing, touching and beautiful.

Has anyone else read this book? Any plans to? Perhaps you’ve read something else by Julie Otsuka hat you can recommend.

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