In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka uses a strikingly original story form to explore the lives of Japanese mail-order brides summoned to California by strange men from their homeland who have emigrated before them. Rather than delve deeply into the stories of one or a handful of these women, Otsuka chooses instead to tell the stories of a multitude of women in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of each of their lives. The unusual format is very effective at demonstrating the impossibility of ever telling the story of Japanese women in mid-20th century America. Each of them came from a different life in Japan, and found themselves married to very different men in America.
The multiple lives are recounted in an unwavering list format:
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. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others.
I don’t think this type of storytelling could sustain itself across an extended narrative, which may explain the slim size of Otsuka’s novel. Brevity in length should in no way be confused with slightness of impact, however. The Buddha in the Attic is a powerful insight into what life was like in pre- and post-World War II America for Japanese-Americans, and may haunt readers long after the final page is turned.