Almost like a mesmerizing chant, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic will hypnotize you with its lilting monologue and heart-wrenching imagery. The voices of Japanese “picture brides” explain their epic journey in eight chapters from their expectations and fears on their journey to America on the boat, to the disappointing reality of their new lives, and finally, as they disappear into the World War II Japanese internment camps.
With many stories blended into one voice, the tale becomes an everywoman’s cry. The fast pace of the action has no plot but as the women move from “first night” to the fields, to giving birth and raising children, I was forced to pause now and then, to digest the enormity of their struggle. The book is deceptively small – a little over a hundred pages – but more would render the reader helpless and overwhelmed. The last chapter – “A Disappearance” – suddenly shifts voice to the townspeople who express their shock, then anger, and finally acceptance of the Japanese internment – “The Japanese have disappeared from our town.”
Beautifully conceived, The Buddha in the Attic is not the typical trite story retold so many time in novels of picture brides, but a searing poetic testament to the Japanese women who were lured into an unexpected life in a strange country, without the comfort of their customs and language – and endured. Read it and weep.