Japanese Picture Brides

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka

During my cover spying at the airport last week I saw a woman reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. This reminded me that I still hadn’t finished writing my review, even though I finished the book back in the beginning of September. Yeah, I’m kinda behind on reviews. Oops. Anyways, here goes:

Oksuka’s first novel dealt with the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. The internment also figures heavily in her second book, The Buddha in the Attic, which follows a group of Japanese picture brides as they leave Japan, travel across the Pacific Ocean to America, and adjust to life in their new country.

There is no main character in this book. I kept waiting for one to emerge, to hear one voice rise above the others, so I would have one story to follow. Instead, each of the women speak in turn, in the same paragraph. The intent must have been to attempt to show the multiplicity of experiences, and how each woman dealt with the same basic circumstances. Unfortunately, the book often read like a laundry list. Every now and then there would be a paragraph or so devoted to one story, or I’d recognize where one story picked back up after dropping off thirty pages earlier.

A couple snippets that work:

On throwing themselves into work:

We put away out mirrors. We stopped combing our hair. We forgot about makeup. Whenever I powder my nose it just looks like frost on a mountain.

On the desires of their teenage children:

One wanted her own room, with a lock on the door. Anyone who came in would have to knock first.

There are some misses, where Otsuka gets heavy handed. Take, for example, what happens when people start being taken away by the authorities, those that remain wonder who is reporting them, and why:

One of our customers at the Capitol Laundry, perhaps, to whom we had once been unnecessarily curt? (Was, then, all our fault?)

The parenthetical is not needed. The question is clearly expressed in the people’s worries. This may seem nit-picky, but this is a slim little novel, and from what I’ve read, Otsuka labors intensely over each word, and it takes her a long time to write a book. My expectations are higher than they might otherwise be.

One of the most powerful sections of the books dealt with how the townspeople deal with their fellow citizens being taken by the US Government. At first, they worry about their neighbors. No one knows where they’ve gone, no one knows when, if ever, they’ll be back. But rather quickly, the townspeople move on, attending 

“a lecture at the annual Pilgrim Mothers’ Club luncheon by recent Nazi refugee Dr. Raoul Aschendorff, entitled “Hitler: Today’s Napoleon?” which draws a standing-room-only crowd,”

never realizing the parallels to the Japanese in America.

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