Friday, November 18, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka — 144 pgs

In this gripping story told in the collective voice of a group of Japanese mail-order brides, Julie Otsuka examines the lives of hundreds of women who left Japan to marry men they had never seen and live in America. But when these women step off the boat after their long journey, they discover that nothing is how it had been represented to them. The men they had been waiting for were not wealthy, educated and handsome; most were actually itinerant farm workers who paid their dowry in order to have an extra pair of hands to work the fields and assuage their physical needs and loneliness. The women are distraught to discover the lives they hoped for were but a mirage on a distant horizon, and they take their places on their knees in the fields or becoming maids or laundresses. When the women give birth they must strap the babies onto their backs immediately afterwards so they don’t miss a day in the fields, and their children grow up to be timid, shy or obstreperous. Some of the women grow to love their husbands but most learn to accept their fate quietly and become worn down with sorrow and work. When news comes that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and the country is at war, these Japanese wives and their husbands begin to face hatred, prejudice and finally forced evacuation. Haunting, lyrical and sparse, The Buddha in the Attic tells the tale of the women who were dealt a bitter hand by fate and the ways they learned to accept and overcome all that their lives had become.

When I initially started reading this book, the collective voice was a little hard to get used to, but I began to see that Otsuka actually performed an amazing feat by writing her book in this style. Not only was she able to tell the story of hundreds of women at once, she was also able to faithfully represent all the variations and vagaries of life these women coming over from Japan faced. I actually grew to enjoy this use of the first person plural, though I thought I never would. I understand where some people could see this style as impersonal, but to me, it felt very intimate and gave me a feeling of being in the midst of a large group of women recounting their sorrows to an impartial listener, though anyone reading this book cannot remain impartial for long.

I was awash with sympathy for the way these women had been tricked and forced into lives they had never suspected to lead. Only a few found joy with their new husbands and children. Most of them lived sharp lives of percussive unhappiness, moving and migrating along with the men they had been yoked to for better or worse. I think the chapter that most tugged at my heartstrings was the one that dealt with the taking of the women’s virginity on the night they arrived in America. There was nothing romantic or tender about any of it, and it was with a heavy heart that I read about women who were forced bodily into becoming the wives that their new husbands had paid for. The way the women were treated and tricked into the voyage was treacherous, and as I gripped my book in my hands, ingesting all their heartache and bitterness, a wave of sadness rolled over me that couldn’t be shaken.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese have now become the suspicion-laden enemy, and the Americans who had formerly ignored them begin to harbor deep resentment and anger towards them. This forces the Japanese women and men to become even more stolid and silent, and they remain confused as to why certain men are being dragged off into the night, never realizing the same fate awaits them. The last chapter is narrated by the Americans who watched the mass exodus of the Japanese and can’t understand the puzzling feelings of sorrow and loss they feel for people who have existed so long beside them but have never been respected or properly honored. Otsuka does a remarkable job of making this section, and indeed the whole book, feel at once like a confessional statement and a list of regrets that will move and touch both readers who are familiar and unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding these lost people.

This is a short read that packs a powerful punch, and while it’s ultimately very sad, it tells a story that may be new to some. In the fluidity and grace of Otsuka’s imaginings, these women move out of the territory of the faceless and nameless and become recognizable and human; more like us than we will ever be able to realize. This was a powerful and haunting book that will make readers consider and think deeply as they peruse the pages, and some may find these stories cannot be forgotten once the covers have been closed. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

33 comments:

Kaye said...

I'm glad to see you recommend this one as I just saw it on Goodreads and thought it sounded interesting.
Beautiful review, Heather.

Beth F said...

Between you and Meghan, I see that I can't miss this. It seems to be so powerful and tells a story that Americans tend to sweep under the table.

Beth(bookaholicmom) said...

I will be putting this on my tbr list! This sounds like a heartbreaking read but I find it interesting to read about things we seem to sweep under the rug! Wonderful review! You sold me on this read!

bermudaonion said...

How heartbreaking for those women! I do think many immigrants think this country will be different than it is - my grandmother really thought the streets would be paved with gold. I love a good immigrant story and will have to look for this.

Kathy said...

Heather, I am glad you enjoyed this one. I did also. I finished this book a couple of weeks ago but really haven't been able to get this story out of my head. I initially didn't like the plural voice the author used but now think it was an ispired way to tell the story of so many women who were so poorly treated. Great review as always!

TheBookGirl said...

After just finishing Camp Nine, this seems like the perfect book for me to pick up next.
I can't remember the last time I read a book using the first person plural voice. From your description of this book, tho, it sounds like the perfect choice.

Thanks for a great review Heather, I am definitely going to seek this one out.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wow, this just sounds so sad and depressing! But it sounds like a story that needs to be told!

reviewsbylola said...

Great review! I was already planning on reading this one but now, after reading your review, I am very excited for it!

Steph said...

I first heard about this book when the list for the National Book Award nominees was released and I didn't really give it a second thought. But now that I've read your review of it, I'm super intrigued, even though at first glance this isn't a topic I naturally feel compelled to read about. Still, your review is so haunting I feel I have to read the book now!

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I've read two intriguing reviews of this book just this morning...it's going on my WishList :)

Jenners said...

I don't think I've ever read anything in the collective voice that I can think of. For that reason alone, I'm interested. I can't imagine having a life like this … coming all that way from your home to find yourself tricked into a difficult life you never wanted.

Excellent review -- as always.

Amy said...

I definitely want to read this one, this is a time period and subject matter that interests me a lot. Thanks for the great review!

Suko said...

This is a beautiful, well-crafted review. I think I'd better look for this book.

Audra said...

The title and image made me think this was a memoir about a Westerner becoming Buddhist so I'm surprised to see the actual plot -- it sounds WAY more interesting than the book in my head! I've been curious about it when I saw it was one of the NBA finalists -- yours is one of the first reviews I've read. I'm not sure I'd like it, exactly, but it sounds like a compelling topic done in a unique way.

Marie said...

I really need to get this. I sold a copy to a woman at work today who was so excited to get it. this seals it!

softdrink said...

"This is a short read that packs a powerful punch, and while it’s ultimately very sad, it tells a story that may be new to some." Very true, and I think more true if you haven't read her first book. While they're both great on their own, I think together they lose some of their impact. At least, that was true for me. I felt like she was rehashing some (not all!) of the story, just in a different voice.

Wall-to-wall books said...

I have heard a lot about this book! It sounds really good to me, might have to put it on my wish list.
Thanks for the review!

Jenny said...

I agree with you about the impact of the plural narrative and think Otsuka did a great job with it! I'm glad you liked this despite its overall sadness.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I definitely want to read this one. Your review made me believe this even more! I wonder if it's as good on audio...

Anita said...

I've heard of this book but your review makes me want to read it now . Beautifully done Heather.

Anita said...

I've heard of this book but your review makes me want to read it now . Beautifully done Heather.

Harvee said...

Sounds terribly sad, on all fronts, but it's a book I'd love to read. Great review!

Suko said...

This sounds sad and powerful and worth reading. As usual, your review is outstanding.

Vasilly said...

I am so happy that you enjoyed this read! It's one of my favorite books of this year. Otsuka is such a talented writer.

Nymeth said...

Beautiful review. I loved When The Emperor was Divine, and this sounds just as good.

Lisa said...

This sounds like a great companion to one I just read (Camp Nine) and every bit as good as I was hoping it would be.

Aths said...

I loved this book!! I had difficulty with the plural tone initially, but soon I was pulled into the book. It was written so beautifully and I loved the last chapter.

Susan Bennett said...

Sounds like a brave and interesting work, though I anticipate it won't be easy to read.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I can see how the collective voice is a fitting way to tell this story (and thanks for the warning; I'll be patient with it, if I find it awkward at first).

Sometimes these slimmer novels are more powerful. Not only due to the subject (as this one certainly is!), but because every word is so carefully chosen. There's no extra unessential filler.

Margot said...

I just downloaded this book to my kingle last week and abandoned it in the first chapter. It was confusing. Now I see why. Thanks for your explanation of the writing style. Also, your review reminds me why I wanted to read this book in the first place. I'll go back and try again.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

you give the book and women such honor with your review - beautiful

nomadreader said...

I adored this one too! It was my pick to win the National Book Award. Still, I was so moved by the collective voice of the narrative. It is truly astonishing how much Otsuka was able to do in so few pages. She's amazing.

Loft Ladders said...

The book wasn’t bad at all. I felt the overall story was a little so but the depth of the characters kept it going. (My opinion)

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