Johnny's Reviews > The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
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's review
Dec 23, 2011

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bookshelves: japan, female-protagonist, historical, america, fiction, asia

I just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor and the tremendous amount of fabulous press it was getting. With all the build up, my expectations were a bit high; the book on its own certainly is a great read, but it's so different in form and structure from When the Emperor Was Divine that I found it a bit jarring. (That is admittedly simply a problem with my own reading aesthetic!)

There is a lot of pretentious talk in literary circles about prose poetry, but this is poetry prose if ever there was such a thing. The short book loosely follows a group of Japanese mail-order brides traveling to America by boat several years before the World War II and concludes several years after the war. The narrative voice is a rarely used collective first person: the opening lines read, "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall" (3). This format rarely changes, and while it creates a beautiful, lyrical quality to the book, it also stands as a barrier between the reader and the characters. We never learn these characters names and we never distinguish one from another. Granted, Otsuka uses unnamed characters while quite effectively creates a bond between them and the reader in When the Emperor Was Divine, but there the characters are quite individualized whereas here they are deliberately intermingled with one another.

As expected of Otsuka, there is astute commentary here. Early on in detailing a list of the items the girls have brought with them on the boat, she includes, "silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong" (9). And the first chapter closes with a heart-breaking truth: "This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong" (18). In spite of feeling segregated from the characters myself, I definitely was moved at times.

What works here in isolation is that poetry of the language. Otsuka uses repetition effectively to convey that collective protagonist. In almost every part of the book, she begins each sentence with the same phrasing, only then to allow her characters to contradict themselves in order to show the many facets of life these women faced. For example, at one point when the Japanese interment has begun on American soil, she writes, "Our adult children would be allowed to remain behind to oversee our business and farms. Our business and farms would be confiscated and put up for auction" (94). These juxtaposed oppositions exist throughout the book, and they have their desired shocking effect on the reader. However after dozens of pages using this construction, the effectively is somewhat diluted.

This is a worthy read, particularly due to its overall brevity, but if you haven't read Otsuka yet, start with When the Emperor Was Divine!

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