Book review: The Buddha In The Attic, Julie Otsuka

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JULIE Otsuka’s latest novel is a harrowing portrait of America between the two world wars told through the eyes of a boatload of Japanese mail order brides, from their hope-filled journey to the land of the free to their eventual internment.

There is no single narrator, and the story flicks effortlessly between the women’s general and individual experiences. The women differ enormously, from the excited to the suicidal, in the extent to which they are looking forward to their new life, yet Otsuk seems able to capture different reactions to the same experience in one breath.

From the moment the boat lands in America, the women drift apart. After expecting to be greeted by young handsome lawyers, accountants and business owners, the women meet old, tired farmers and shop workers with bad tempers and an unforgiving libido. They are taken to work the fields, forced to act in the role of the unsatisfied bedfellow to unfaithful men, and are pushed to seek affairs themselves. Some work the streets for money whilst others find more forgiving work as a housekeeper, before they bear children of their own.

From that moment, their life becomes about raising culturally indeterminate children in tentative environments. We see everything from stillbirths in filthy fields to women burying their own children for a chance at financial survival. While the lucky few find happiness, this is mostly a tale of courage in the face of adversity.

Otsuka excels in creating an eloquent but simple narrative that culminates in the eventual eviction of the Japanese. The last chapter depicts the American response, with some neighbours looting abandoned homes, and some mourning the loss of their mistreated friends.

For such an emotional journey the text is remarkably sparse. Yet throughout, Otsuka tells a powerful, affecting story that ensures a largely forgotten voice is heard once more.

The Buddha In The Attic

Julie Otsuka

Penguin, £12.99

Rebecca Monks