Buddha in the Attic is an experimental novel about the immigrant women who came to the US from Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. How well this novel works for you will depend mostly on how much you like the experimental style the novel is written in. I was less fond of it, so while I found the novel to be worth reading and interesting, it didn’t really move me in anyway and I didn’t find it particularly memorable.
Otsuka tells her story in the first person plural, and the narrator is a collection of individuals rather then one person. In addition to being about a group of women, the book is also more a collection of information rather then possessing anything resembling a plot. In one way, this is quite effective in that it universalizes the experiences of these women and the reader is drawn in and forced to participate in the events and emotions in the lives of these women. However, with no single narrator or plot line the reader is also left bereft of one single individual to experience these events with thus distancing them from the events.
As I said, there is very little plot, but what there is of it is the experiences of the Japanese ‘picture brides’ who came over from Japan during the 1920s and 1930s to marry, live, and work in the United States. They were farmers, maids, shop owners, and restaurateurs as many immigrants to the US have been both before and after them. However, their story is one of the great shames of the United States for on February 19, 1942 all persons with Japanese ancestry in the United States were ordered to relocated to internment camps simply because they were Japanese. This novel doesn’t deal at all with the time in the camps, and ends on the rather depressing note as the neighbors, co-workers, and employers of these women slowly forget that they were ever there.
The novel was interesting, but it really did read more like a collection of facts then a story. And while I admire the research that went into the novel, I could not quite get lost in the book. I enjoyed the prose though, it read very much like prose poetry as the rhythms of each experience layered on each other to pound out the experiences of a life.
I think what the novel is most successful at is showing how universal the experiences of these women were, and how easy it was to other them for small cultural details. It is a novel of warning for the United States to not let this happen again, a warning that feels particularly important given the political situation right now. And the novel is also a reminder of the past and an exhortation to not forget these women and their ordinarily extraordinary tale.