While the basic story of Japanese picture brides in the first decades of the 20th Century is well-known, what exactly their experience was like and how they felt is far less familiar. Author Julie Otsuka takes on the challenge of speaking their voices and in doing so, she vividly revives their spirits into her latest novel, “The Buddha in the Attic.”
The story is intense, sometimes shockingly raw, and never is a moment lost. She expresses an emotionally intense tale with what it was like to be a young Japanese woman dropped into a strange and hostile world, where even the husbands to be are almost as alien as the nightmarish world they wake up in. From this moment of fractured dreams upon their arrival in America, these women travel into building new lives and finally into the internment camps of World War II.
The language and voice of the book must be mentioned. Like her skillfully crafted, distinctive, and well received first book, “When the Emperor was Divine,” her writer’s voice is truly unique. But Otsuka is not a one-trick pony. Although the writing style here is related to the earlier work, it is more like a relative from a distant shore, just as her new novel’s protagonists are.
Whereas convention often calls for a story of one symbolic composite character to stand for all, Otsuka does the very opposite. There is no one identifiable character; rather, she sweeps together a plethora of women’s experiences and emotions, and speaks with a corporate “we” throughout her narration.
Taking on the multiple voices of the first person plural, she embodies them and weaves them into a singular spirit. Telling hundreds of different women’s experiences, with almost every sentence, the character shifts into another, with yet another facet added to a multi-faceted gemstone ever growing as the narrative progresses.
The author never surrenders her corporate “we” voice, and with that singular “we,” she embraces all those Japanese picture brides, leaving not a single soul behind. The one first person plural voice speaks for all of those Japanese who ever dreamed, suffered, and endured the reality of the life as emigrant wives, mothers, and evacuees.
Propelling the narrative forward is Otsuka’s remarkably simple prose and structure, with common repetition of sentences that is reminiscent of the gospel preacher style. With lightening speed efficiency, the reader is nearly drawn into the whirlwind of the story at an almost frantic pace. Yet never do simple sentence structures distract, nor bore, but for (because of) Ostuka’s masterful hand for words and images which sustain the story’s electrifying energy.
She not only recreates a world lost to time, but also revives the ghosts of the past. The final chapter is especially haunting and unique because of its perspective. The WWII evacuation of Japanese from the West Coast forces the departure of these picture brides and their Japanese families. Otsuka’s Japanese protagonists and their corporate “we” voice again become ghosts and disappear from the narrative. We then hear the voices of the remaining Caucasian American residents, as they experience a world without Japanese, left in the vacuum of their departure.
This is no mere book, but a reading experience. “The Buddha in the Attic” cannot be measured by its grammatical simplicity, or by its number of pages. Its weight and heft transcend its physical size. Julie Otsuka again shows that she is a writer’s writer.
From the first page, like her characters, the reader enters into her spirit world. Writing about the August Festival for the dead (“Obon”) and their spirits, she writes:
And at the end of that day, when it was time for them to leave, we set paper lanterns afloat on the river to guide them safely home. For they were Buddhas now, who resided in the Land of Bliss.
Putting the book down upon reading its last page, readers, too, will reside in Julie Otsuka’s land of bliss.
“The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka has been nominated for the National Book Award.