Sunday 1 September 2013

Book review : The Buddha In The Attic - Julie Otsuka

Last month's book up for discussion on the Brit Mums Book Club was The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka. Although I'd heard of the title, I had no idea what it was all about. It's actually a work of historical fiction, looking at a cultural phenomenon that I knew nothing about and one that I found totally fascinating, not to mention shocking : the Japanese Picture Brides.
The opening chapter introduces us to a group of young Japanese women, most in their teens and early twenties but some much younger, who are nervously but excitedly crossing the ocean to America, clutching photos of the men who are imminently about to become their husbands. While the photos show handsome young men standing next to houses and cars, the reality is often much less attractive - the photos are very old or show a different man altogether and the carefully penned letters of introduction are full of pure fabrication, often being written by professional writers. The young women discover that their life will be one of hardship, living in poverty and working very long hours in the fields or scrubbing floors in the rich white people's homes.
The book follows their journeys, from their first night in the marital bed, through motherhood and towards integration and acceptance, as they embrace the American way of life and their destinies. Society may look down on them as second class citizens, their American-born children may be ashamed of their imperfect English and strange Japanese rituals, their husbands may not respect them, but they manage to maintain their dignity and find their place in the community. Then World War II breaks out and the Japanese are forcibly removed to some unknown place. The final chapter, seeing them being replaced and forgotten, treated as totally dispensable temporary cheap labour, even by the sympathetic Americans who counted them as friends, shows the injustice and disrespect shown to the Picture Brides and their families.
Julie Otsuka has a totally unique and very poignant style of writing. In the early chapters, she describes each girl's reactions to a given situation in a litany of short sentences : "One of us did this ... One of us did that ... One of us came to a sad end". As the book progresses, we learn their names but even as each glimpse becomes more personal, it only serves to show the bigger picture : a group of young woman doing whatever they can to survive in this alien and sometimes hostile land.
It's a very short book - not even 150 pages long - and many of the characters only have a sentence or two to depict their life, but each vignette is so hauntingly and poignantly constructed that it is a book that will stay with me for a long time.
Intrigued about the historical reality of the picture brides, I went to investigate online and discovered that thousands of young Japanese women were sent to America, from the start of the 20th century until the practice was stopped in the 1920's. Julie Otsuka's earlier novel, When The Emperor Was Divine, published in 2002, tells the tale of a West Coast family deported to a Japanese internment camp in 1942. I'll definitely be reading this book too, as it could almost be the follow-up to The Buddha In The Attic , showing what may have happened to some of those picture brides who disappeared so suddenly from their homes and communities at the outbreak of war.
star rating : 5/5
RRP : £7.99
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (7 Feb 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 024195648X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241956489

    Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book from BritMums Book Club.
    Other reviews you may be interested in :


    1. I did the same, after finishing the book, started to search online for more information, especially on the camps. A brilliant book

    2. Hiya hun!
      Love reading your book reviews and wondered if you'd want to join in my blogging book club?



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