The Buddha in the Attic unfurls as a sequence of linked narratives, some no longer than a paragraph. While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, that reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion … The Buddha in the Attic is, in a sense, a prelude to Otsuka’s previous book, revealing the often rough acclimatization of a generation of farm laborers and maids, laundry workers and shop clerks whose husbands would take them for granted and whose children would be ashamed of their stilted English and foreign habits. Otsuka’s chorus of narrators allows us to see the variety as well as the similarity of these women’s attempts to negotiate the maze of immigrant life … Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry.
[The Buddha in the Attic] is a fascinating paradox: brief in span yet symphonic in scope, all-encompassing yet vivid in its specifics. Like a pointillist painting, it's composed of bright spots of color: vignettes that bring whole lives to light in a line or two, adding up to a vibrant group portrait … In prose that's as close to music as prose can be, Otsuka captures the fears and anticipations of young women leaving behind everything that's familiar to them on the chance that they'll find something better in America … For parents and children alike, the outbreak of war followed by ‘evacuation’ to internment camps far from the coast is a shocker. Otsuka is needle-precise in showing how the smallest logistics of dismantling your life in response to government decree can be devastating and disorienting.
[Otsuka] calls it a novel. It is closely and carefully based on factual history/ies. There are novelistically vivid faces, scenes, glimpses, voices, each for a moment only, so you cannot linger anywhere or with anyone. Information is given, a good deal of it, in the most gracefully invisible manner; and history is told. Yet the book has neither a novel's immediacy of individual experience, nor the broad overview of history. The tone is often incantatory, and though the language is direct, unconvoluted, almost without metaphor, its true and very unusual merit lies, I think, in that indefinable quality we call poetry … I am sorry that...in the last chapter, she suddenly changes her narrative mode and ceases to follow her group of women. The point of view changes radically and ‘we’ suddenly are the whites.
By using the rare first-person plural point of view, Otsuka combines the tragic power of a Greek chorus with the intimacy of a confession. She conjures up the lost voices of a generation of Japanese American women without losing sight of the distinct experience of each … In these poetic sections, she covers a roughly 20-year arc of the picture brides' lives from voyage to wedding night to adjustment to the foreign culture to bearing and raising English-speaking children … The Buddha in the Attic is an understated masterpiece about our treatment of the ‘other,’ the distillation of a national tragedy that unfolds with great emotional power.
No story in the conventional sense ever develops, and no individuals emerge for more than a paragraph...Each chapter focuses on some general aspect of Japanese immigrant life — sex, employment, children — and the great variety of their experiences is blended, often sentence by sentence … The very best sections of the novel reminded me of the poetic catalogues in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but periodically the rhythm turns flat and the lists betray a kind of pedestrian pattern … As the internment demanded by Executive Order 9066 approaches, the book’s communal voice again becomes more appropriate to the paranoia and confusion these women feel. Their voices mingle, and isolated images, so precisely captured by Otsuka, deliver an explosion far beyond their size. And yet I’m troubled by the friction between this novel’s theme and its style.
Knowing what will come, plot is not what urges the reader on. Rather, it is the details of the women's lives that fascinate as they spread throughout California like fireflies released from a jar … The moments that lead toward internment read like a catastrophic incantation, although the book's title — reflecting one of those moments — suggests that history can't girdle a people forever. Still, Otsuka's evocation of the time when ordinary Japanese could be regarded as traitors can't help but remind us of today's fevered suspicions of Muslims in America. Be careful, this novel seems to warn us; be careful of how we apprehend people with names, accents and religions unlike the majority's.
The style and subject of her latest novel are similar to those of her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, written in 2002 (and talked about for many years afterward). The sentences are lean, and the material reflects a shameful time in our nation's past. The women who came to the United States were filled with hopes and dreams that were dashed as they met their husbands-to-be — men who looked nothing like the photographs that they had sent to Japan, and who were not doctors and shopkeepers, but field hands and laundrymen. They were men who themselves had been disappointed and beaten down by a country that wanted their labor but not their presence … Otsuka masterfully creates a chorus of unforgettable voices that echo throughout the chambers of this slim but commanding novel, speaking of a time that no American should ever forget.
In depicting the lives of Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 1900s, novelist Julie Otsuka might have invented three women, alike and different, and braided their tales together. Instead, with great daring and spectacular success, she has woven countless stories gleaned from her research into a chorus of the women's voices, speaking their collective experience in a plural ‘we,’ while incorporating the wide range of their individual lives. The Buddha in the Attic moves forward in waves of experiences, like movements in a musical composition … By its end, Otsuka's book has become emblematic of the brides themselves: slender and serene on the outside, tough, weathered and full of secrets on the inside.
The Buddha in the Attic is a tessellation of the fragments of these women’s stories. Pieced together, the novel comprises a gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country. The author, Julie Otsuka, illuminates the challenges, suffering and occasional joy that they found in their new homeland … The book becomes a history lesson in heartbreak. Just as we come to the rewards of our years of hardship — businesses well established and children in university or with factory jobs or serving in the armed forces — we are forced to abandon everything, the noodle shops, farm stands, vineyards and laundries, and sell our most precious possessions to white neighbors at giveaway prices. Tagged and herded off like livestock, to destinations unknown, we become the victims of one of the most shameful acts of 20th-century America.
There are no central characters. A first-person-plural chorus narrates the women’s experiences from their departure from Japan until they are removed from their homes and shipped to the camps, at which point the narration is taken over by clueless whites. Rather than following an individual story, Otsuka lists experience after experience, piling name upon name … A lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson.