Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf; 144 pages; $22).
I am glad I was not one of the judges who chose the winner of this year’s National Book Award! There were three novels that I really loved in the field: Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and, the subject of today’s review, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Other books nominated were Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.
Ultimately, Ward’s Salvage the Bones took home the literary prize. The Buddha in the Attic, though, was just as worthy and just as affecting. Otsuka writes this intimate novella with elegance and subtlety.
Although you need not read them together, The Buddha in the Attic is a kind of prequel to Otsuka’s 2001 novel When the Emperor was Divine, published just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Otsuka uses the increasingly popular first-person plural (“we”) to tell her story. Of all the novels I have read whose authors used this method of storytelling, I have to say that Otsuka does it the best of all. Does she create the sense of place that Carsten Jensen does in We, the Drowned? No. Does she create the incredible feel for her characters that Justin Torres gives us in We the Animals? Again, no. So what is so wonderful about The Buddha in the Attic? Many, many things.
The Buddha in the Attic begins with a hopeful group of Japanese picture brides who are on their way to America in the early 1900s. Otsuka chose real history about which to write. Many Japanese brides came to America at this time looking for better opportunities and for husbands.
Otsuka writes as if one of them were your sister or your best girlfriend. You, the reader, sits down with her for tea and she recounts to you what it was like. Sometimes she whispers and you must lean closer. Sometimes she laughs, as do you. Sometimes she gets a wistful look in her eye when she remembers her family she left behind back in Japan. Sometimes, when she recalls something especially painful, she cries. And you do, too.
“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” Otuska begins. “Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years.”
The first thing the girls did on the boat was compare photos of their husbands. They were giddy to see them. The husbands “were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished.” They wore Western-style suits and posed by their American cars and American houses.
But when they reached port in San Francisco, the girls did not recognize the men waiting for them on shore. Who were these men? If you guessed that the men were older, darker, and poorer, you are correct. The photos they sent were pictures of their cousins or of pictures decades old. The girls were shattered.
When The Buddha in the Attic begins, the girls share a collective experience. They are all on the same ship, all going to the same place, all picture brides. When they reach San Francisco, though, their experience ceases being a collective one; it becomes individual. No one girl will lead the same life.
Otsuka never concentrates on just one of these women; she wants to tell us about them all. This may frustrate some readers who seek to feel deeper attachments to the characters they read about.
Again, picture the tea you are having with your sister or girlfriend. She tells you a little about her own life, but there are so many other lives to tell you about. She cannot focus only on herself. The story is bigger than just one person, and that is what Otsuka wants her readers to realize. I feel that is why she chose to use the first-person plural.
What happens to these women after their dreams were shattered? The brides cannot return to Japan. They have no money for the passage home. They have nowhere else to go. Some leave their husbands to become prostitutes. Some leave their husbands for other men. Others stick with their husbands and work with them in the fields. They to make their lives work. They have children and the years pass, as they are wont to do. The women grow older, and their needs and lifestyles change.
Otsuka takes this story all the way to World War II and the Japanese internment. You will cry here. My one criticism is that Otsuka deviates too much at the end in the section entitled “A Disappearance.” Otsuka writes this in third-person from the point of view of the women’s Caucasian neighbors who wonder what has become of the Japanese.
Otsuka, it is important to point out, was born in Los Angeles long after the time period in which she sets her novella; she writes, though, as if she lived it. The Buddha in the Attic is an emotional, detailed, heartbreaking story. Its 144 pages packs a powerful punch. Japanese culture comes to life under Otsuka’s guiding hand. Her prose is stylish and elegant. This is one of those novels that will stay with you for your entire life.