Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic

 With The Buddha in the Attic, award-winning novelist Julie Otsuka  (When the Emperor was Divine) demonstrates her remarkable ability to relate a complex and emotionally-charged story in language that is at once beautifully lyrical and exquisitely precise.

The early 20th century saw the migration to California of “picture brides” – young women who left behind homes and families in Japan for a far-away land and an unknown way of life. They traveled in steerage, carrying little more with them than the photos of the dashing and prosperous young men who were their new husbands. Departing Japan was soul-wrenching, the passage to California was arduous, and the husbands who met them upon their arrival were usually not handsome and were very likely to be poor. 

Loveless marriages, back-breaking jobs, constant pregnancies and poverty were often the lot of these brides. Their children added to their heartbreak by Americanizing their names, refusing  to speak Japanese, and rejecting  the traditions of their ancestors. Still, the mail order brides struggled for decades to gain a toe-hold in a foreign country that never welcomed them and was intolerant of their alien ways. 

Otsuka’s use of a first person-plural narrator is very affecting-- the narrative is a stream of anecdotes told by the brides about themselves that form the bigger picture of the novel, the embodiment of “our” story.  The book is sectioned into eight parts, beginning with the brides’ painful leave-taking of their mothers and homes and ending  decades later with their removal to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. With a minimum of carefully selected words Otsuka brings to life a profoundly-moving but little-known episode in American history; at a compact 129 pages it’s a book that can be savored in one sitting, and it’s a perfectly delicious read. 

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