Published in 2011, this book is a gem and at only 129 pages can be quickly devoured and enjoyed. It may be small in length, but it’s big on thought-provoking pathos. Otsuka uses the plural first-person voice — not an easy writing mechanism — to convey the collective, and yet individual, experience of a group of young Japanese women brought to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.
No individual’s name is used; it’s always “we” and “our.” Still, the vast array of different experiences encountered by these women as they navigate their new world is told with beauty, clarity and empathy. As in poetry, there are no spare words in this tight prose. The story is told in eight sections, beginning with the women’s arduous journey across the ocean. They are met by the men they are to marry and find that many of them do not look like the photos they’ve supplied or match the rosy letters they’ve written. The young brides must adapt to life with a strange man while coping with a new culture and often back-breaking work.
The years unfold with homesickness and tragedy sometimes and children are born who later reject the Japanese culture and language. The fear of everything and everyone Japanese with the arrival of World War II does not spare these Americanized women and their children.
A passage on the final page of the book is especially poignant. “Mr. Harada is no longer with us, and the rest of the Japanese are gone. We speak of them rarely now, if at all, although word from the other side of the mountains continues to reach us from time to time — entire cities of Japanese have sprung up…But this is only hearsay, and none of it necessarily true. 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 Buddha in the Attic won the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction and was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. Otsuka was born and raised in California and is also the author of When the Emperor Was Divine.
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