The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka

First Sentence:   On the boat we were mostly virgins.

This novel came out in America this year but is not being being published on this side of the pond until 2012. The first thing to note about this book is the narrative voice. It is the ‘we’ of an entire community of Japanese women who are brought to San Francisco as mail-order brides in the early 1900s. It traces their journeys, all different, but with underlying common sensibilities. It is difficult to get a real sense of who is telling the story when, in effect, it is being told by a group of people simultaneously, as this snippet highlights:

Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives.

As these Japanese women become absorbed into the American way of life their Japanese identity is steadily being eroded. There will always be that hidden Buddha however, the Buddha in the attic which cannot be destroyed or forgotten. This is an unusual, short, poetic piece of fiction and what it is lacking in plot and characterisation it more than makes up for in its sparse, affecting prose. As I was reading it I enjoyed the journey, but now, several weeks later it’s not a book I could wholeheartedly recommend with any great conviction. After a while the collective ‘we’ begins to feel a little bit restrictive and I feel a larger book which had one central voice interspersed with these communal passages might have worked a little bit better. But that’s just me, this is definitely worth a look though, especially if you are interested in the plight of the Japanese in America during the second World War. If you’re looking for plot, avoid; if you’re looking for poetry, dive in.

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Last Sentence:  
All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.

Last Sentence explained:   The turning point in this novel is a passage called ‘Traitors’ where we see the forced removal of all Japanese people. It comes at a time when there is almost a balance of Japanese and American values which is swiftly destroyed. By the end of the book however, in a rather clever turnaround, the narrator’s ‘we’ has shifted to the American voice speaking about the Japanese who are no longer a part of their community.

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