The Buddha in the Attic – Review

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There were about 175 of us.  There were working mothers and stay at home mothers among us.  Every single one of us was writing a blog.

Some of us had a flock of offspring and found it easy, some of us struggled to get one toddler out of the house on time.  Some of us had partners and were lonely, some of us were single parents and rarely out of help.  Some of us missed the days of clubbing and Friday Happy Hours at a pub down the road from the office, some of us adapted to a life of icing cupcakes and soft plays and did not complain.  The rest of us resorted to gin.  And chocolate.

All of us belonged to the Penguin/Britmums Bookclub.  All of us were waiting in anticipation for the postman to push a brown envelope through the door.  All of us could not wait to read Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

When the books reached us we sighed with a relief.  We hid the novel in suitcases and took it on exotic holidays, to read when our children napped and husbands drank their way through the cocktail menus.  We put it on kitchen tables to steal a moment here and there, in between cooking, washing up and wiping dirty bums.  We put it at our bedsides and promised ourselves to read it before we fell asleep.  I will manage to stay awake this time.  Honestly.

Some of us could not wait to read the story, opened the book as soon as it arrived, disappeared into the first words and did not want to come back.

‘Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. ’

We read it while sitting on dusty staircases.  We read it while waiting outside schools and nurseries.  We hid it among important documents at work.  We read it while doing shopping in supermarkets.  We devoured it on buses, trains, the London Underground and while cycling into lampposts.  Some of us had to wait until the other halves were finished with it and we were left with the tease of the enthusiastic comments on the book club website.

Most of us could not put it down until we got to the very last word.

Julie Otsuka showed us a world few of us knew much about – Japanese mail-order brides shipped to California in the early 1900s.  Some of the stories rang familiar to those of us who had ever tried Internet dating.  The disappointment at the first meeting and discovering that the photo we marvelled at was taken 20 years ago when the man had all his hair and teeth and was a few stone lighter.  Or that the picture was not of him but a better looking friend or a stranger.

We admired the simple language of a novel that read like a poem.  No word was out of place.  Very few of us minded the ‘we’ and not ‘I’ telling the story.

We gasped at some of the accounts of the Japanese wives’ first nights with their husbands:

‘That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word… .’

We thought about what it must have been like to live in an alien culture knowing that the gate back home was shut.  Some of us knew the feeling.  Some of us had heard the stories of promised lands, did not believe them and this book only confirmed what our hearts told us.

Some of us identified with the mothers and their heartbreak of having to abandon their little ones every day for hard work and toil.

‘In early summer, in Stockton, we left them in nearby gullies while we dug up and sacked onions and began picking the first plums. We gave them sticks to play with in our absence and called out to them from time to time to let them know we were still there. Don’t bother the dogs. Don’t touch the bees. … And at the end of the day when there was no more light in the sky we woke them up from wherever it was they lay sleeping and brushed the dirt from their hair. It’s time to go home.’

We understood the pain of watching our children slipping away from us, becoming a part of ‘their’ and not ‘our’ world and we wanted to know what happened next.

We learned about the history of prejudice, hostility and the internment camps that came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The tension and paranoia rising and ‘the Japanese disappearing’ almost overnight from farms and towns, off the streets and out of an white  average American’s life.

‘Kiyono left the farm on White Road convinced she was being punished for a sin she had committed in a previous life. I must have stepped on a spider. . . . Fumiko left a boarding house in Courtland apologizing for any trouble she might have caused. . . . Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.’

Not all of us liked that fact that the last chapter went from ‘we, the Japanese women’ to ‘we, the white Americans.’  But some of us thought it was a clever way of pointing the finger at the reader and forcing them to take responsibility for the women’s fate.  Experience what it must have been like to disappear and to be forgotten.

We could not wait to talk about this book.  We passed it on to friends and families, colleagues and strangers who looked like they needed a good read.  We blogged and blathered about it.

We did not want those women to disappear.

We were determined not to forget.

About the author:

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California.  After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing.  Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II.  The Buddha in the Attic is her second novel.

The Buddha in the Attic is available in your local bookshops.

Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of The Buddha in the Attic and I received no other payment to write this review.  I really loved this book and all opinions are my own.  I would not have it any other way.

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