The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

10 May, 2012

Winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is a deceptively simple tale. Tale is probably the wrong word to use to describe this kaleidoscope of memories and experiences that make up this story of the Japanese everywoman who crosses the ocean, leaving behind her family and life in Japan, to an unknown fate tied by marriage to a man she has yet to meet. Many are virgins, some are not. Otsuka’s voice is rocking and gentle and yet what it says is harsh and blunt and doesn’t shy away from the trauma and tribulations faced by these women, all in search of better and happier lives.

The collective voice, the collective experience all serve to draw a complex, harsh picture of life as an immigrant in a land where they are viewed with suspicion. They work hard, they have children, they learn to put up with their husbands who may not have been wholly truthful to them about their prospects. But within their difficult lives are little nuggets of happiness and contentment, a picture of lives lived to the full, whether in happiness or pain.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Otsuka’s style and stopped reading the book after the first chapter. It was too much; the voices, the endless yearning and hopes, the dissappointments. And yet, when I took up the book again, I found I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know that they would be alright. There was something inherently familiar about the women Otsuka describes.

And it’s not just the inner lives of these women that Otsuka is so good at exposing. The Buddha in the Attic is also a portrait of small town America, the immigrant experience, segregation and ultimately the suspicion and internment of the Japanese immigrants as enemy aliens after Pearl Harbour. There’s so much life in this slender volume. It was as though I was watching reel after reel of film where you get glimpses of early 20th century Japan and the US.

As in most immigrant experiences, the trials of the parents are different to those of the second generation. And as the children shed their Japanese names with their language, the parents can only look on with sadness and bewilderment, uncomprehending and yet wanting them to integrate.

Otsuka has done in a slim volume what many have tried in big, chunky sagas. It’s beautifully written and one that will echo within me for a long time.

So have you read this? I’ve a mind to go and get hold of her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine.

A big thank you to Penguin for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

8 Responses to “The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka”

  1. I know that you started off this review by discussing how alienated you felt at the start of this book, but that actually is what has made me all the more determined to read this book! I think it is a testament to the power of this novel that you initially felt overwhelmed by the various voices and feelings, but ultimately they drew you in and wouldn’t let go. I actually have a copy of Otsuka’s first novel, but haven’t read it yet. Now I really want to!

    • sakura Says:

      I think it had a bigger impact on me because I changed my mind while reading this book. It’s probably because I was questioning it so much. I really want to read her first novel too!

  2. Mystica Says:

    I have heard so much about this book and also conflicting views on it. When it is differing views I certainly would like to read it.

  3. itoeri Says:

    thank you for introducing me to another author with Japanese origin. uggh..i am so behind the latest.
    both her 1st and 2nd novel sound very deep – curious what other topics or era she is going to write about in the future.
    and how interesting that she was a painter first.

  4. Violet Says:

    I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. I think Otsuka managed skilfully to include an amazing amount of history in her slim book. I loved the collective voice aspect, because that is how many people regard immigrants, as a collective “them”, so I think Otsuka subverts that notion and does it beautifully. I think doing the research must have been really hard, because there are so many heart-breaking stories of hardship, but I think it is an important book and gives the women a voice, a chance to have their stories heard, and for this it deserves all the accolades it has received.

  5. sakura Says:

    She must have done a lot of research for this book. For such a slim book, it had a huge impact on visualising the history of these Japanese people. I really wasn’t sure whether the collective voice would work, but as you say, it does beautifully!

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