The Buddha in the Attic

book by Julie Otsuka

annotation by Tina Rubin

Stories dealing with the misguided actions of the U.S. government toward its perceived enemies usually affect me like a punch to the gut. But I need to know, so I don’t run away. Julie Otsuka’s novella about the Japanese picture brides who came to California between the two World Wars was a killer in that respect. Her short, Hemingwayesque sentences were icebergs of emotion.

Otsuka uses an interesting device: her point of view is first person plural. The “we” of the book is a group of young Japanese women who meet on the boat, sailing to an unknown future in America to meet Japanese husbands they have never seen. The husbands, of course, had sent twenty-year-old photos back to Japan to win over their brides and hired professional writers to craft their courtship letters. The narrative arc moves from the women’s arrival and initial disappointment to their inevitable adjustment—to their husbands as well as to the new country, culture, and language. Most accept their fate stoically and thrive despite disease, extramarital affairs, and having to work in the fields or as maids to white families.

I read the book with mild interest until the last forty or so pages, when the Japanese internment begins. After that, the anguish of the author’s understated words hit me, and I could only read a page or so a night before choking up. It was then that I recognized the degree of Otsuka’s skill. Despite keeping individual characters at arm’s length throughout the book, she managed to reveal who they all were. And I cared about every one.

Here’s how she did it. Otsuka relates much of the action by opening her paragraphs with words like “some of us” or “most of us.” She follows with  statements expressing many different situations, ending with a specific thought by someone in the group that illustrates the point. As I absorbed first the general examples and then the narrower one, I began to differentiate the characters—although I didn‘t realize it at first.

An example, from the opening chapter, “Come, Japanese,” on the boat:

At night we dreamed of our husbands. . . . We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been sold to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air. For a second I thought I was her. (5)

Or, from the chapter simply called “Whites”:

One of us blamed them for everything and wished that they were dead. One of us blamed them for everything and wished that she were dead. Others of us learned to live without thinking of them at all. We threw ourselves into our work and became obsessed with the thought of pulling one more weed. . . . We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. . . . But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared. (37)

As the novel goes on, Otsuka attaches names to the characters but keeps the structure intact. The effect is to reveal the tremendous power of each detail. Details tell the entire story, yet each one, so carefully chosen, becomes irreplaceable.

In a startling final chapter, “A Disappearance,” the first person plural now represents the whites who are left behind after the Japanese have been rounded up and taken away. The unexpected shift in point of view is a delicious surprise. Not only does it work perfectly, but it’s a logical choice, given that the original “we” is gone. And from a historical perspective, even if a fictional one, the reactions of the whites trying to make sense of their friends’, schoolmates’, and local business owners’ disappearance wraps the book up with food for thought.

This is a novel that remains in one’s thoughts long after the last page is read—for Otsuka’s technique as well as her story.


Shutter Island

book by Dennis Lehane

annotation by Lee Stoops

“…How much violence, Marshal, do you think a man can carry before it breaks him?”

~ Dr. Cawley, Shutter Island (170)


Sometimes, the story alone is enough to carry a novel. How freeing would that be? This is the case with Shutter Island. Surprisingly, the writing is not as strong as one might expect from a repeated New York Times’ best seller – one whose stories have been turned into several blockbuster movies (including one that went on to win a number of Academy Awards). Lehane, in Shutter Island, has managed to present a story gripping enough that it doesn’t need exemplary prose to compel the reader. I’m the first to admit, I’m jealous.

Told from the close third person perspective of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels as he, along with his partner Chuck, investigates a missing person report on an island that houses an institution for the criminally insane, Shutter Island explores mystery, truth, perspective, love, loss, and denial from a variety of angles through plot twists and weaves that leave the reader satisfied, stunned, and in tears.

Lehane’s writing is quick and familiar, sometimes colloquial, sometimes period savvy (think 1950s), though never consistently, and never all at the same time. Fortunately, the story flows, rages, even while leaving gaping holes that help make the reveal at the end unexpected but mostly believable. The pace of the narrative gives it strength enough to help the reader ignore some of what might be considered failed language techniques. An example of an evocative, engaging scene written strangely:

“Teddy started to trip down on his knees in front of the toilet, heaving into the bowl as the ferry’s engine chugged and clacked and Teddy’s nasal passages filled with the oily smells of gasoline and the late-summer sea. Nothing came out of him but small streams of water, yet his throat kept constricting and his stomach banged up against the base of his esophagus and the air in front of his face spun with motes that blinked like eyes” (12).

Lehane’s sentences tend (as in the above example) to run wordy, often including clichéd turns of phrase, descriptors, or confusing structure. While this might work for a Joan Didion essay, it makes fiction, specifically mystery grounded in the insane, difficult to read. But, the plot holds its ground and gives the reader reason to continue reading.

The setting (remember: mid-1950s island, institution for the criminally insane) offers the story an environment free from technology and as much strict adherence to laws, statutes, or even societal expectations. The island, and its war-time structures (defensible buildings that remain from World War Two) turned institution and housing for the island’s patients and staff, exists in ominous isolation off the foggy New England coast. The liberties the doctors seem to take with patients, medicine, and procedures give Teddy’s character and narrative credit. The reader may question the reliability of the narrator, but it all feels legitimate throughout. The reliable, unreliable narrator is nothing new, but pulling it off with inconsistent prose is a remarkable achievement. It’s both a surprise and not a surprise to learn, in the end, that Teddy is, in fact, no longer a U.S. Marshal, but that he is a patient in therapy, working through an experimental, last-ditch effort to save his own life and mind – literally: a failure in the exercise will result in his lobotomization.

“We hoped. We hoped we could save you. We stuck our reputations on the line. And now word will get out that we allowed a patient to play act his grandest delusion and all we got for it were a few injured guards and a burned car. I have no problem with the professional humiliation.” He stared out the small window square. “Maybe I’ve outgrown this place. Or it’s outgrown me. But someday, Marshal, and it’s not far off, we’ll medicate human experience right out of the human experience. Do you understand that?”

Teddy gave him nothing. “Not really.”

“I expect you wouldn’t” (308).

Teddy arrives on the island tasked with finding a missing mental patient. In the end, he learns the truth about himself and his violent, tragic past. Yet, whether a choice, an act, or simply the result of his lost-cause condition, he reverts to ignorance of his life’s truths. Lehane’s masterful storytelling, in spite of inconsistent textual presentation, creates with Shutter Island examples of compelling plotlines and interesting technique choices.

The thing that is frustrating, to me, as a writer, about the book is that it works. It works so well, even though the writing raises every red flag we’re taught, as writers (even as readers), to avoid. Lehane explores grief, anger, insanity, denial, love, trust, and mystery in ways that invoke the reader’s full emotional commitment. But his seeming disregard for the rules of writing is maddening. Maddening because I know I’ll never get away with the same thing, maddening because I can’t let enough of those rules slide, maddening because I have yet to trust one of my stories, any of my characters, enough to let them tell the story with the kind of fervor that might free me (and my readers) from the rigors of writing. Way to go, Lehane, way to go.