The Buddha in the Attic

Some books, no matter how short, draw you in, sweep you off your feet and leave you asking for more. They make you travel back in time, bring the characters right in front of you almost as if you can touch them and see for yourself how vivid words can be. They make you sad in a happy kind of way and happy in a sad way. They tell you stories of an entire generation in a few pages and few lines even. They make you feel something you cannot place and that feeling lingers when you are at Mc Donald or even just staring at the ceiling at home, lying on your favourite couch.

One such book is “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. The book is inspired bythe life stories of Japanese immigrants who came to America in early 1900s. Otsuka has drawn upon a large number of historical sources and explores the fate of a large group of picture brides brought from Japan to US.  Narrated in the first person plural, the novel opens with the women on the boat travelling from Japan to San Francisco.

buddha1

The book through its incantatory sections traces the lives of these women from their arduous voyage where the girls excitedly compare photos of their husbands-to-be and fantasize about unknown features in a foriegn land; to their arrival and first-nights with their husbands; to their endless back-breaking labour as migrant workers in the fields of white owners and as helpers for white women; their struggle to adapt to a new culture and langauge; their experiences in childbirth and raising children who reject Japanese heritage; and finally, the arrival of war and how every Japanese is viewed suspiciously and their trials and the agonizing prospect of internment.

The book had me spell-bound. I loved how Otsuka has divided the book into chapters, each signifying an important phase, a collection of experiences that talk to you. It is a story of loyalty and identity. The expectations and fears of Japanese women about America is described beautifully. But if you ask me about my favourite sections, I will, without batting an eyelid, say “Babies” and “Children”. I loved how the chapter on babies opened – “We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year…. we gave birth quietly,  like our mothers who never cried-out or complained….. we gave birth secretly, in the woods, to a child our husband knew was not his…. “As I sit to type the lines, I realize I may just reporoduce the entire chapter.

What makes it all the more powerful is the first person plural narrative. Honestly, I hadn’t read a book until this one,  that followed this narrative style and spoke so powerfully to me. When Otsuka starts a line with “One of us..”, I loved the way it made me think of a single woman amongst the group of Japanese women I had drawn in my inner mind and sometimes, I just couldn’t figure out who it would be. Sometimes, I had a great deal of confusion identifying that woman. I loved the writing style – so simple, so classy, so power-packed and so poignant.

The women’s lives in America and how things are different from what they had been led to expect is beautifully portrayed. Many a time we have certain perceptions of a foriegn culture that come from all sorts of sources but when reality strikes, you realize how different things actually are. Sometimes they turn out to be better and sometimes not. Sometimes they shock you to the core but you go on like it has always been a part of you. But as a reader, it moves you, shocks you and makes you want to change things for the characters in some places. And yet, quite pradaoxically, you find the sadness and tragedy beautiful. It evokes something in you and makes you realize that you love reading for this same thing. And reinforces why stories are the best. Again, what makes Otsuka‘s writing spectacular, is its ability to convey so many experiences, so stories as one collective journey through a narrative in first person plural.

Read this one for the sheer narrative style; for the story of an entire generation in brief chapters; for the poignant description of children’s dreams that differed from those of their mothers; for the reminder that life enjoys playing with us by bringing about rifts between expectations and reality; for the shocking tales of so many women who call themselves “We”.

 

 

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15 comments

  1. greenboochi · January 22, 2014

    Absolutely loved your review Kismi!! I am getting this book as soon as possible for sure! I wish I kept on reading this post, for its so very interesting.

  2. Jas · January 22, 2014

    First person plural narrative is what is sounding exciting to me too 🙂 Loved those few lines that you have mentioned here.

    • kismitoffeebar · January 23, 2014

      Jas!!!!!!!!!!!!! Am grinning ear-to-ear now 🙂 So happy to see you! Hope you have fun with this one 🙂

      • Jas · January 23, 2014

        Happy to be back 🙂

  3. Destination Infinity · January 22, 2014

    Your review is very good and it makes this book look very interesting, but as Amazon reviewers have pointed out, there are certain limitations with this first-person plural POV. It generalizes many things, but maybe there were that many common features. Scope for personal story and character development is very limited. I will decide whether I want to read this one or not, in the future. Right now, have too many books to read!

    Destination Infinity

    • kismitoffeebar · January 23, 2014

      Maybe DI. To me, it became a collective story, one that brought everyone together emphasizing how every individual’s story weaves a society’s experiences. Ya, there is no scope for personal story but then I guess, the author wasn’t focussing on that. Morel ike a story of a generation, you could say. Like, when you read about the concentration camps etc, you do read it like one collective experience, right?
      Ha ha – I know what you eman by so many books 🙂 Have fun. Someday, I hope you get to read this as well!

  4. The Girl Next Door · January 22, 2014

    This book is on my wish list, after reading Bindu’s review about it. Your review makes me want to read it immediately. And I do have a copy on my Kindle. 🙂

  5. Tharani · January 22, 2014

    I am getting this one too.
    I read, ‘The english teacher’ based on your recommendation and loved it 🙂

    • kismitoffeebar · January 23, 2014

      Am so happy you liked ” The English teacher” 🙂 Hope this works its magic on you too 🙂

  6. Titaxy · January 22, 2014

    narrative style is something i enjoyed too about the book. i loved the way it was written. but i don’t know why, the book itself didn’t make much of am impact on me as it has on you. maybe i will give it another shot some other day. 🙂

    • kismitoffeebar · January 23, 2014

      I loved the spirit with which you wrote those lines 🙂 I guess it may not work for all as some reviews have pointed out. But if you do give it another shot someday, I hope you enjoy it better 🙂

  7. pixie · January 27, 2014

    ah goodie!! I was curious about this book.. now, I can pick it up at the library! 🙂
    Thank you for such an excellent review!! 🙂

    • kismitoffeebar · February 3, 2014

      Go for it Pixie. I think you will enjoy it 🙂 Thank you too!

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