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Review: The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

the buddha in the atticThe Buddha in the Attic is the collective story of Japanese “mail-order” brides who came to the United States before World War II. They arrived to husbands they didn’t know, lives they didn’t expect, and a country that refused to accept them. And just when the Japanese finally began to grow a toehold in the community, the accusation and racism that defined World War II took effect and eradicated them from a visible role in the country for years.

When I saw that this was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, I immediately knew I had to read it. I’ve been longing to read Otsuka’s first book, When the Emperor was Divine, for a long time now, but since this was short and available on Netgalley, I seized the opportunity to finally experience this wonderful author for myself. I’m very pleased with the choice I made because this was an excellent book and I enjoyed each and every heartbreaking moment.

Because this is a collective story, it isn’t presented the way you would expect. There are no individual characters. There are Japanese brides, seasick on a boat, leaving behind a multitude of struggles, hardships, and even a scandal or two. There are men awaiting those brides, who may or may not live up to the photos and descriptions they sent across, who may exceed their wives’ expectations or who may disappoint them immeasurably.  In less than 200 pages, we’re treated to an extensive range of what may have happened to these Japanese women; even though their experiences can be very different, they start out at the same point and unfortunately all of their stories in this volume end at the same point, with sorrow, heartbreak, and detention camps.

I loved this approach because even though it clearly depicts the difference between individuals, it also highlights the absolute universality of their experiences. It didn’t matter if the women were married to farmers or businessmen or shop owners. The end point for all of them was the same, a camp. And while many women got out of the camps eventually, the experience and suffering was universal. And because they are marked out as individuals in the middle – not by name, but by experience – it’s easy to sympathize with the women and feel that they are human beings, not the “Other” that allowed their fellow human beings to sweep them from their lives and shove them all in one place as “dangers.”

In short, The Buddha in the Attic is an incredibly powerful book, and one that in my opinion is certainly award-worthy. The description on the publishers’ website states that it is a book about the American Dream, and I think that is a particularly apt description – but it’s more about the elusiveness of that dream, and how easily it can be taken away, than anything else. Highly, highly recommended.

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