Anastasia Hobbet's Reviews > The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
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's review
Jan 28, 2012

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bookshelves: fictional-documentary
Read in January, 2012

This is not a novel, regardless of its billing. It's a fictional documentary written in first-person plural that captures the experience of the community of Japanese women who came to the US as contract brides in the early part of the 20th century. It follows them chronologically through the first 20 years of their residency up until the incarceration of the Japanese in concentration camps during World War II. Its strength is it incantatory prose, and its success at picturing the experiences of a wretched generation of women. Its weakness is that the very method Otsuka uses to achieve this keeps the reader forever at a distance. She stays in first-person plural throughout the book: "Some of us worked as cooks in their labor camps...", Sometimes the boss would approach us...", "One of us made the mistake of falling in love...", "A few of us ended up..." The generalizations gather over the chapters like cataracts on the eyes of the reader. Worse, they deaden the heart to what could have been a much finer piece of work. No individual Japanese character is allowed to step forward. Otsuka's editor should have encouraged her to use the first-person plural device sparingly, in scattered chapters, and to bring some of her women to three-dimensional life. Wielded in that fashion, this POV choice would have drawn me inexorably though the pages. Great documentary films (think Ken Burns' work) always focus on individuals while at the same time picturing the masses. I want to bond when I read, to see a face, to know a mind and a soul. Otsuka pushed me away.
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