Monday, September 5, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

In her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, author Julie Otsuka told the story of how one Japanese American family had their lives torn apart by government sanctioned bigotry, racism and theft during World War 2. Her new novel The Buddha in theAttic could be seen as a prelude to that book. It is the story of a group of ‘picture brides’. Prior to 1924 when immigration acts prohibited the immigration of Asians into the States, matchmakers used photos to wed thousands of Japanese brides to Japanese Americans working in the U.S. Beginning just after World War 1, The Buddha in the Attic follows some of these brides over twenty years.

You only need to know what this novel is about to know that it will tell heartbreaking stories. What you cannot know until you read it is how unique it is. Instead of following the extremely well worn path in fiction of telling a group story by selecting three characters to follow over an extended period, Otsuka builds a series of connected narratives by nameless women who refer to themselves and each other as “we”. This collective approach to the stories gives the novel a documentary feel.  An assurance in its own truth that is unassailable and commanding. The characters become witnesses rather than works of imagination.
The brides arrive in America clutching the photos of their husbands. They already went through a marriage ceremony in Japan, a koseki. That is an entry of marriage in a Japanese family registry. Some of the photos are decades old, others show men groomed and in their best clothes. Few photos match up readily with the rough looking working men waiting to claim their wives.
The women join their husbands in backbreaking work on farms, small businesses, domestic service, etc. Their marriages are loving or cruel.  Their existence is precarious. They marvel at the strangeness of Americans. They bear children that grow up to be part of this new world and forever separate from them. They never assimilate but they gain a level of independence from experience and sometimes necessity. The isolated community of “we” that the brides viewed themselves as slowly broadens over the years until Pearl Harbor turns them all into traitors.

Otsuka showed in When the Emperor Was Divine that she can do more with 5 words than other writers can do with 1,000. The Buddha in the Attic proves that was no fluke but the economy of the writing belies the descriptive beauty Otsuka fills her novel with. Across the eight sections of the novel Otsuka uses a delicate touch to illuminate her stories of brave and self-sacrificing lives. The Buddha in the Attic is an overwhelming and beautiful novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment