‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka is a strikingly original book. Written in the first person plural (“we”) , a chorus of voices, told from the point of view of a group of Japanese picture brides who move to the United States shortly after World War One, recount their story through sparse descriptions of the journey to California by boat, their mostly unhappy marriages, their children and their experiences of acclimatising to life in a new country. However, their world is suddenly turned upside down again by the bombing of Pearl Harbour and they find that they have to leave.
You will either like the way this book is written or you will hate it. There is no single dominant character and the experiences of these women are presented in a general sense rather than describing specific events in detail so it is not really a traditional story in that respect but perhaps more of a ‘history’. Also, the sentence structure is very repetitive – a bit like reading a very long shopping list – which some readers might find to be quite annoying. For me, the originality of ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ really stands out in a good way but for others, I appreciate that it might be a little too unconventional.
Although the description may appear to be sparse, Otsuka did a lot of research for this book which makes it feels truly authentic despite the unusual narrative voice. There are also a lot of different themes covered which address the immigrant experience of cultural differences and segregation. While the women here ‘speak’ collectively, intimate glimpses of their individual lives are allowed to shine through too so I think Otsuka got the balance about right. The final chapter, told from the point of view of the women’s white neighbours, was an excellent way to end the story.
‘The Buddha in the Attic’ is a short book which can be read in one sitting. It is very affecting with many subtle layers of emotion and I think it will linger in my mind for a long time.
10 responses to “The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka”
The shopping list comment is a bit harsh, but I do see what you mean. Loved the book. Have you read her other one?
I am always interested in novels that have an unusual narrative voice, so this is going straight onto the TBR pile. Thanks for the recommendation.
I hadn’t heard of this novel but it’s going on the list! Great reviews, great blog. I thank you but my debit card doesn’t 😉
Sounds like a great book, I’m going through a bit of a war-story phase at the moment so I will definitely check this one out!
I really enjoyed this book as well and definitely recommend reading it in one sitting. I am looking forward to checking out her over book, have you read that?
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The narrative style is indeed different, although it is occasionally difficult to empathise with with the “character(s)” in this way. The subject matter however is very interesting, and one that none of my Japanese co-workers had even heard of. It would be nice if the author took her undoubtedly extensive research and wrote a fuller historic offering in future.
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The narrative style is intriguing from the opening sentence in chapter one to her final sentence in the closing chapter. I do however agree with Mark that this style doesn’t make it easy to empathise with one character – we simply have to view the women as a group. I admired the poetic repetition throughout, and the simple sentence structure, which while compressed hides a sinister dark thread throughout.
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