The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Reviewed by Meganne Fabrega
In most novels it takes only one strong voice to make an impact on the reader, or sometimes two to expand a plot. Three voices may liven things up, while any more than four require a quiet room and, perhaps, a flowchart. In Julie Otsuka's latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic, the author brazenly writes in hundreds of voices that rise up into one collective cry of sorrow, loneliness and confusion. The voices are of Japanese girls and women who were sent to the United States at the dawn of the 20th century to become brides of Japanese men who worked in the fields, laundry rooms and kitchens of the West Coast.
The style and subject of her latest novel are similar to those of her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, written in 2002 (and talked about for many years afterward). The sentences are lean, and the material reflects a shameful time in our nation's past. The women who came to the United States were filled with hopes and dreams that were dashed as they met their husbands-to-be -- men who looked nothing like the photographs that they had sent to Japan, and who were not doctors and shopkeepers, but field hands and laundrymen. They were men who themselves had been disappointed and beaten down by a country that wanted their labor but not their presence.
"We'd disappeared," the women said, shortly after they arrived to discover their true fate. "We made ourselves small for them." And they were speaking not only about their new husbands, but also about the Americans they now shared a life with.
Otsuka winds a thread of despair throughout the book, haunting the reader at every chapter. For every step forward there are two steps back for these women, who did their best to build a life and a home in a country that was largely unsympathetic to their isolation. They lost their identity when they arrived, they lost their children (literally) as they worked the fields, and then they lost their homes, worldly possessions, and businesses when they were sent to the internment camps during World War II.
In the last chapter, Otsuka speaks in the voice of the Americans who finally realized that the Japanese who they had sometimes welcomed, sometimes just barely tolerated, in their communities had "suddenly" disappeared.
Otsuka masterfully creates a chorus of unforgettable voices that echo throughout the chambers of this slim but commanding novel, speaking of a time that no American should ever forget.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
This review was originally published by the Star Tribune.