The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

Knopf, 129 pages

ISBN 9780307700001

On a boat crossing the Pacific, twenty Japanese girls showed each other pictures of their future husbands.  These husbands appeared to be young and strong, handsome and good natured, and were already working as farmers or bank managers or businessmen in America.  A life with any one of them would be better than a life working in the rice paddies at home, where food was scarce and marriage prospects were poor.  So they boarded the boat and sailed into the unknown, trusting that all would be well.  And when they arrived, and looked into the faces of their husbands, they knew it would not be so, for their husbands were all labourers and many of them had sent pictures that were twenty years old.

With no other choices before them, the Japanese girls settled into life in America.  Some worked as farm labourers and died in the fields because they did not know how to ask for water.  Others worked as maids, cleaning houses for people who used them as examples of what their children’s lives could become without an education.  All of them were pressured into having sex with their bosses, and sometimes, it was easier to succumb.  When the day was over, and they headed home, they were expected to keep a clean house, make proper meals, and raise the children all on their own.  And if they wanted to go out, they learned to call ahead to ask if the restaurant or theatre admitted Japanese.

Winner of the 2012 Prix Femina pour l’etranger, The Buddha in the Attic recounts the collective stories of these Japanese picture brides who settled in California shortly after the First World War.  Otsuka successfully captures the myriad of voices using spare language and the first person plural, creating a powerfully choral reading experience.  Mesmerising and illuminating, The Buddha in the Attic is a haunting work that will appeal to those who enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.





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6 Responses to The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

  1. Melinda says:

    I would give this one a try, I’ve been reading a lot of novellas as of late.

    • Naomi says:

      I really loved it, and highly recommend reading it in one sitting to get the full effect. I think the power of all of the voices would somehow get diluted if you put down the book and picked it up later.

  2. Alex says:

    All over Europe these women’s story is being repeated even now as girls from the Eastern European countries are fooled into coming to Western European countries on a similar pretext. Do we never learn?

  3. Thanks for letting me know of your review Naomi, it’s interesting that this book was written in the third person plural as well I understand. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    It’s dad when young women don’t know what they are getting themselves into, but it surprises me how many come anyway, knowing what it will be like. I see older woman making these choices and it is often their young children who suffer, unsure why they’ve left their poor but idyllic childhood behind.

    • Naomi says:

      And I think a contemporary equivalent is the Filipino nanny situation – many of them come over here in search of a better life, leaving their own families (and sometimes children) behind, and then find themselves in barely self-supporting situations. It’s a bit of a complicated mess.

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