‘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.