The Things They Left Behind
The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, 131 pp., $20.00, hardcover.
Reviewed by Mako Yoshikawa
In Julie Otsuka’s compelling new novel, The Buddha in the Attic, a group of Japanese picture brides—women who have been married to men they know only through photos—voyage across the ocean; meet and sleep with their Japanese immigrant husbands for the first time; work as field hands, cooks, maids, or prostitutes; struggle with English; try to understand the ways of white Americans; and give birth and raise children who grow up ashamed of their mothers’ thick accents. After Pearl Harbor, the women endure the suspicion of their white neighbors and employers; eventually they are rounded up and shipped off to internment camps. Their story is dramatic and moving. It is also familiar, known to us from history books although not from many novels or films—yet the way that Otsuka tells it is anything but.
The Buddha in the Attic employs a collective narrator, and there’s no protagonist or even identifiable characters; while names such as Urako and Chiyoko abound and lines of dialogue from individual women are scattered in italics throughout the book, because we hear only one detail about their lives they are essentially uncredited. Their identities are lost among all the others in the narrative. In this sense, the novel is like “The Things They Carried,” the iconic Tim O’Brien story about a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. But with “we” substituted for “they,” Otsuka’s characters never emerge as distinct entities out of the pack, and her narrative is stretched to the length of a novel, albeit a slim one. Moreover, Otsuka’s storyline has no sustained conflict to give it structure. These elements make her work daring as well as formally unique. That she can sustain our interest for 131 pages without the storytelling pillars of character and overarching conflict—and there’s no question that she can—testifies to the power of her prose, which is spare, precise, and often pitch perfect. Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (2003), was justly celebrated for its writing; this one tops it.
The Buddha in the Attic begins deceptively simply: “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.” The second line suggests that the group is uniform, but the teasing phrase “mostly virgins” cues us that these women resist easy categorization, and in the lines that follow, the “we” becomes increasingly diverse. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves,” Otsuka writes. “Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years.” The diversity is regional as well as economic and generational.
At the end of the first paragraph there’s a turn: “Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.” The line is noteworthy, and not only because it speaks to the losses that have already shadowed these women’s lives. The word “too” in the last phrase, which equates the women’s journey to America with a death or suicide at sea, hints at how ghostly and insubstantial these characters are, foreshadowing how their voices will blur together in the narrative as well as how they will eventually vanish into the camps. After all, even though we do hear the words of individual women here and there, their full stories remain untold. Otsuka achieves a rare and paradoxical double feat: she gives these oppressed and silenced women voice and at the same time illuminates how their voices have been lost to history.
And these are voices we want to keep. Snappy, down to earth, wry, and often very funny, they provide a sharp and effective contrast to the poetic, elegiac narration. They demonstrate how little historical and cultural differences matter: we feel as if we know these women. Here’s a picture bride from a region without many eligible men speaking of the husband she has yet to meet: “I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, ‘He’ll do.’” Another, who lost one husband to flu and a second to a younger woman, says of her third: “He’s healthy, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t gamble, that’s all I needed to know.” Discussing how laboring in the fields has made her forego make-up, one woman complains, “Whenever I powder my nose it just looks like frost on a mountain,” and we hear the following about Tommy Takayama’s mother, who is known as a whore: “She has six different children by five different men. And two of them are twins.”
Otsuka renders these vivid characters’ disappearance into the camps beautifully. “Iyo left with an alarm clock ringing from somewhere deep inside her suitcase but did not stop to turn it off. Kimiko left her purse behind on the kitchen table but would not remember until it was too late. Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” The presence of these objects stands in stark and poignant contrast to the absence of their owners.
Yet it is the absence of their voices that we feel most acutely. So captivating are they that when they are gone and a new chorus, this one from the white community left behind, takes up their story, we miss them, and that’s Otsuka’s point. By the end of the novel, the Japanese are ghostly figures who are spoken of rarely, with wistfulness or something like hope. “[W]ord from the other side of the mountains continues to reach us from time to time,” the second collective narrator tells us; “entire cities of Japanese have sprung up in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Japanese in Idaho have been put to work picking beets in the fields, and in Wyoming a group of Japanese children were seen emerging, shivering and hungry, from a forest at dusk.” But finally, the white community must acknowledge that this is only hearsay: “All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.” The Japanese women’s voices—each of them so precious and alive—are gone, and all that we who are left behind can do is mourn.
Mako Yoshikawa is the author of two novels, Once Removed (2004) and One Hundred and One Ways (2000), and a professor at Emerson College, Boston.