The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
Knopf, 129 pages
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.