My final read of 2011 was The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This was my second Otsuka novel – the first was When the Emperor was Divine, which I read just before The Buddha in the Attic and reviewed here.
The Buddha in the Attic is about picture brides who came to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1900s in search of promising futures with young, handsome men whose pictures they carried with them on the long trip over. Most of the women were met by men who looked very different (older, shorter) and were significantly less wealthy than they had promised in their letters. On arrival, these women were forced into lives of sharecropping, farming, laundering, cleaning houses, or other physical labor – a far cry from the luxurious existences they had expected.
The Buddha in the Attic isn’t a linear story; instead, it’s like diary entries from a hundred women compressed into a mosaic. The book is grouped loosely into chapters covering the trip to the U.S.; the first night with their new husbands; the reality of their new lives; the babies they had; the Pearl Harbor attack; and (as described in much more detail in When the Emperor was Divine) the Japanese internment in which most of the women lost their homes, their jobs and sometimes their husbands. Some people may not be fans of this almost poetic approach, but I liked it a lot. Otsuka wrote in the first person plural, kind of like a Greek chorus. I loved the breadth of the women’s experiences, and how she took a single defining event, such as the first night of marriage or the trip over on the boat, and showed how different women experienced it.
The Buddha in the Attic was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I can see why. It’s fresh and different and moving. I think between the two novels, I slightly preferred When the Emperor was Divine. It was a little more satisfying because it followed one (admittedly nameless) family. But I liked The Buddha in the Attic a lot too. These women led such difficult and painful lives, and Otsuka really captured them, poignantly, in great detail.
This is a quick read, and I really recommend it.