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Friday, December 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Knopf, 2011

This is the story of some Japanese women who came to the United States in the early 1900s as mail order brides for Japanese men. Some of the men were laborers, some were shop keepers. Some of the men were rich, some were poor. Some treated their new wives with love and respect, others were abusive and demanding. Some of the new husbands and wives deceived each other with their pictures and letters sent before marriage, and so were disappointed when they met. Some had open and honest relationships. Most had children who grew up to reject their ancestry and history and heritage. Almost all found themselves classified as the enemy after the events at Pearl Harbor. A few disappeared, never heard from again. Many lost their homes and their businesses when they were relocated to the camps.

Told in beautiful and descriptive language that combines the experiences of many women into one voice, this novella may perhaps be more accurately described as a prose poem. Interestingly, it is full of contradictions. It is one story, yet it describes many women’s experiences. It is an emotional and painful account of the suffering and disappointment that the women experienced, yet the overall tone is detached and impersonal. There are very few names and no specific characters mentioned, yet the author gives the impression that the women know each other and have relationships as the years go by. As readers, we don’t get to know any of the women very well, yet we learn a great deal about the lives of the immigrants through their voices gathered together.

This is a very remarkable book that I highly recommend, especially if you enjoy the power of a perfectly chosen word. I was particularly impressed with the unique voice of the collective Japanese women and the skill that Otsuka used to create one narrative voice with many characters. It is mesmerizing and memorable.


Other novels by this author:
When the Emperor was Divine (2002)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
When artifacts from Japanese families sent to internment camps during World War II are uncovered during renovations at a Seattle hotel, Henry Lee embarks on a quest that leads to memories of growing up Chinese in a city rife with anti-Japanese sentiment.

How to be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2010)
Entreated to visit her ancestral family in Japan in place of her ailing mother, Sue uncovers family secrets that influence her life in unforeseen ways, offer insight into her mother's marriage to an American GI, and reveal the role of tradition in shaping personal choice.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)
Strange things happen in the love lives of two women--one a Japanese-American filmmaker from New York, the other a Japanese housewife--linked by a Japanese television show sponsored by an American meat exporter.


  1. This sounds interesting...I see you mentioned "On the corner of Bitter and Sweet". That's also on my list. Was thinking of suggesting that for my reading group.

  2. It is funny that you post this- I was just on Goodreads adding some old books that I read and one was by Julie Otsuka, so it suggested this book for me. It is now on my 'to read' list.