Rare kind of intimacy

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Penguin, £7.99; Kindle, $9.70

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s second novel, following on from her 2002 debut, When the Emperor Was Divine.

It has already met with effusive acclaim and grabbed a slew of major international awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Prix Femina Etranger. Now in paperback, it is set to enjoy significant bestseller status.

This short but powerful novel really is a peculiar pleasure. The story is an old one, though never less than captivating: between the First and Second World Wars, a boatload of Japanese women are brought to America. They are picture brides, individually unimportant, bought and paid for by their husbands-to-be, fellow countrymen long since exiled and known only by photograph and letter. Men who, it transpires, have greatly exaggerated their means and who stand on the docks as much 20 years removed from their snapshots.

Across eight evocatively titled chapters, we travel with these young women from their villages, drawn by false promises and a desperation to escape the fieldwork. We are with them through their wedding night, brutal for most, slightly better for a few; through work; through child bearing and rearing; through a gradual adaptation to American life, stoic in the face of racism; and, after Peal Harbor and the declaration of war, through the horrors of internment, the accusations of treachery and, ultimately, disappearance.

Beyond the mere plot of the story, though, there is magic afoot. Miss Otsuka offers up an unfamiliar first-person plural narrative (“On the boat we were mostly virgins”). Such a harmonic approach is stylistically daring, and in less gifted hands could easily have slipped into gimmickry. Instead, the result is transcendent, with a precise and unadorned prose style that through its skilled pacing builds to the rhythmic carry of fine poetry. The brief chapter, ‘First Night’, in particular, achieves a quite sublime hypnotic fervour. And the pace continues to the final chapter’s thought-provoking closure, an ice cold finish that with its natural narrative switch stands as a perfect critique of society’s bystanding torpitude.

In presenting the broad-stroke story of an entire section of society over a particular time period, a rare kind of intimacy is achieved, tragic, melancholic and indomitably hopeful. Individual tales make it to the surface, shine briefly and are quickly lost to the relentless drag of life and time. The small stories vary in detail, but share important elements of sameness. Each wave is part of the ocean.

Miss Otsuka is known to describe herself as a failed artist. This short but brilliant book offers definitive evidence to the contrary.


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