Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

It's the collective voice that defines The Buddha in the Attic.  The book is not the story of a Japanese picture bride, rather all of the women who came to the US under the terms of an arranged wedding, and the voices of their children and husbands too.  Everything is 'we' 'us' 'they' and 'our,' and what we lose in intimacy (which is shockingly very little to nothing) we gain in perspective and scope.  While encompassing so much at what seems like only a glance readers get as close to the story as they would want.  
While there isn't a typical narrator or main character to follow there is a traditional story arc.  We see the women on the boat from Japan to California.  We see them settle down in their new lives with their new husbands and come to terms with all the lies they have been told concerning their husbands looks (the women had only seen twenty-year old pictures) status, and most cases near poverty.  We see how they raise a family, spend their money, and how they deal with white people.  Eventually we read about their utter disappearance at the time of world war two.  
There is a duality to near every experience they have.  The jealousy, envy, hatred for the whites they work and deal with mixed with adoration and desire.  They take pride in the quality of their labor--no matter how menial--even if they detest the job being done.  There husbands are perhaps the strongest point of contention.  On the way over the women are expecting up-and-coming businessmen, wealthy land owners, or even those in the medical or legal profession, but what they get are farm hands, restaurant workers, and gardeners for the rich.  While they despise their husbands there is also a loyalty to them and a general unwillingness to entertain leaving.  
It's a short book that, for many, will introduce a minority and hardship into the landscape of American culture that they were previously unaware of.  It's duration is a blessing as I'm not sure how such a distinct narrative voice would hold up over hundreds of pages.  Each paragraph stands alone, being self contained and powerful enough to merit thought all by itself.  By the book's end you'll be thanking Otsuka for the oddity of her third person, collective voice because if we got any closer to the story of the Japanese picture brides she presented we may not have experienced the shared joys and small triumphs of all, nor would we have been spared many aspects of the harsh brutality and ugly reality that is a part of our history.  


kimbofo said...

Glad to hear you liked this one. The collective voice is an interesting but hugely effective device, isn't it? I admit I wasn't sure about it when I first began reading, but there was something very powerful about it. By book's end I felt rather devastated.

Chad Hull said...

I mirror all your feelings on the voice. At the start I was hooked, but constantly asking, "Is this gonna hold up?" It most certainly did. I honestly don't know how I felt by the book's end, but can't say that the novel was anything but powerful.