Tag Archives: We the Animals

Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

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.



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“We the Animals” is Short on Length but Long on Style

        We the Animals by Justin Torres consists of only 125 pages.  While the novel is short on length, it is definitely long on style.  We the Animals is Torres’ debut novel that takes readers deep into the hearts of a mixed and mixed-up family.  Torres is no stranger to the literary world.  He received a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.  His writing has previously appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train.  He is from upstate New York.

The novel is narrated by the youngest son of Paps and Ma, who are both from New York.  Paps is Puerto Rican, and Ma is white.  Their relationship is a volatile one that sometimes turns violent.  Torres chooses to tell the story in the increasingly popular first-person plural.  The storyteller’s name is unknown to the reader, but the reader does learn the identities of his older brothers, Manny and Joel.  The brothers are as thick as thieves growing up, which Torres does a superb job of illustrating.  They are rough and tough and ready for anything.  “When we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers—we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass.  We wanted more crashes.”  Yet, these three brothers have a strong, seemingly unbreakable bond.  “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”  Sometimes Torres portrays them like little monsters, little feral kittens, but always lovingly.

The parenting skills of Paps and Ma disturbed this reviewer.  They were yet another example of kids begetting kids; she was fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, the oldest son.  Often, the boys and their needs take a backseat to those of Paps and Ma.  In one memorable instance, the boys are playing with tomatoes.  Pulpy juice covers their faces.  Ma looks at them and it reminds her of the way they looked when she gave birth to them.  Ma wants to join in on their game: “Make me born,” she says.  Ma also wakes up confused over the day and time during one scene and is convinced the boys should be in school when it is a Sunday night.  Paps is also guilty of neglect at times.  He gets drunk and disappears for days on end.  Ma and the boys are scared of him.  One day, while the boys are hiding behind a shower curtain (a fact both parents know), Paps and Ma have sex.  Yet Torres does this to underscore the brothers as a unit.  “When we were brothers,” he writes, “we were Musketeers.”  When the boys are together, they speak in unison, “one voice for all.”

The chapters are short, but Torres lends a certain rhythm to them.  When Paps danced in front of the boys, they drank him in.  In the dance, they knew all about him, “about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements….”  Like Torres wrote about Paps’ dancing, I could hear the music of We the Animals.  I, too, wanted to dance.

Torres continues with a good pace until almost the very end of the book when he unveils a major revelation.  The unnamed speaker has a homosexual encounter with a bus driver.  His family soon discovers a journal in which he wrote about his sexual fantasies with other men.  I had no problem with the homosexuality aspect; however, the real issue lies with Torres and his storytelling skills.  I felt as if my car had come to the end of a long road.  There was a large gap where the road had been washed away.  A chasm prevented me from getting to the other side.  There was no bridge.  Likewise, Torres needed to connect the brothers as little boys to the brothers as adults.  He does not do this, in my view, and this leads to a disconnect.  Time has passed, but the reader has no idea just how much.  This reviewer needed more convincing.  I wondered if perhaps this could be Torres’ story; is he the unnamed narrator?  I feel compelled to mention I do not know Torres and this is just my thought as I read the novel.

It is at this point that the brothers drift apart.  They are less “we” the animals and more the narrator as animal.  The family even commits the youngest son.  It is there where he truly feels like an animal: “I sleep with other animals in cages and in dens, down rabbit holes, on tufts of hay.  They adorn me, these animals–lay me down, paw me, own me–crown me prince of their rank jungles.”  He is adrift, alone, alien to his family and to himself.  What is he without them?  “I’ve lost my pack,” he fears.

Overall, Torres gives readers a brilliant, concentrated debut.  He entices readers with vivid prose and shows how family is a precious thing indeed.


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