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.

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