Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is a tiny novella, nearly a long short story, that follows the lives of Japanese "picture brides" through their journey to unknown Japanese husbands-to-be living in America, their wedding nights, their struggle to survive and work, motherhood, and Japanese internment in World War II. However, rather than following one or a few "brides," the entire novella is written in first person plural: "we."

This choice of narrator creates a choral effect--a certain echo--which gives the book a poetic feel. It's a stylistic choice with benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, the prose is beautiful and descriptive, and the use of "we" to describe individual women highlights both the similarities and the differences in the women's lives. Some marry abusive husbands; some marry timid men; some marry happily; some become prostitutes. Some women toil in the fields; others do housekeeping work in the city. Some survive and prosper; others' lives are cut short. Yet all women feel some excitement and some regret in leaving their homeland, and all feel conflicted about the country to which they've arrived. The downside to this style is that there really are no characters, and the reader feels no specific attachment to the women. Because of this, the book is not especially engrossing, and the point of view certainly would only work in a very short piece (and this book nearly pushes the limits on how long such a conceit can go, even though it's only 129 pages in large print on tiny pages).

Perhaps, too, because of the lack of specific characters, Buddha in the Attic doesn't feel especially new. Though there's plenty I don't know about the lives of such women, the stories are largely expected. The women are disappointed by the reality of living in America; their lives are difficult, and they struggle to communicate with children who are more Americanizes than they will ever be. They feel shock and resignation when the order for internment arrives. Without individuals to focus on, the story remains rather broad and touches on more familiar issues.

The Buddha in the Attic is such a quick book that it's worth a read for those interested in Japanese immigration, but I'm also sure it's unlikely to be a favorite for many.

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