The narrator of Julie Otsuka’s second novel is a chorus: the disembodied ‘we’ of a cohort of Japanese women who travel to the United States at the start of the twentieth century as picture brides; the book follows them from their initial sea voyage through to their being sent away to internment during the Second World War. A quotation from the first chapter illustrates Otsuka’s general approach:
On the boat we carried our husbands’ pictures in tiny oval lockets that hung on long chains from our necks. We carried them in silk purses and old tea tins and red lacquer boxes and in the thick brown envelopes from America in which they had originally been sent. We carried them in the sleeves of our kimonos, which we touched often, just to make sure they were still there.
This is the language of The Buddha in the Attic: individual details and experiences, blended and distilled into a rhythmic composite. That quotation also hints at the hope which their husbands-to-be and journey to America represent to these women – a hope soon tarnished when they discover that the photographs they were given are twenty years old, and that their new husbands are not the well-off professionals which the women were led to believe, but farm-workers and servants. This is the first example in the novel of the American dream not living up to its promise for the women.
Once their new lives in America begin, the women’s experiences are varied, but most find themselves marginalised or ignored. This is where Otsuka’s main technique comes into its own, as the author creates a broad, sweeping portrait of many lives which can at once move out to reveal common themes and move in to focus on individuals.
When the women come to have children, The Buddha in the Attic gains a new layer in the ways that the new generation’s lives reflect and differ from those of their mothers. Where the women once imagined whatAmerica might be like, now their children have notions of the outside world based on hearsay, which may or may not be accurate (“Beyond the farm, they’d heard, wherever you went you were always a stranger and if you got on the wrong bus by mistake you might never find your way home”). As life goes on, some of the children get a taste of the American dream which was denied their mothers – but not necessarily as the women may have wished, because the children tend to reject or forget their Japanese names and traditions.
Life turns again with the advent of Pearl Harbor, as the women now find themselves and their families regarded with suspicion. Hearsay returns again in the form of a ‘list’ of people to be taken away, about which nothing is known for sure (including whether or not it actually exists), but much supposed. Otsuka builds tension effectively in this section, as the details which have so far formed the basis of the women’s experiences give way to questions and rumours.
Otsuka’s first-person-plural narrative voice may speak for all the women at once, but, to an extent, it also speaks for none of them, as we hear no direct individual testimony. There are occasional references to characters by name throughout the novel, but it’s not until towards the end that we get to perceive them as individuals en masse, as it were – but, by then, the Japanese are leaving their communities, and soon all that will remain of them are vague memories, and the odd physical trace like the brass Buddha which one woman leaves behind. The voice of the chorus falls silent, but the music of Otsuka’s writing rings on beyond the final page.