Now, I know I said my next read was The House of Mirth. It was, I’ve read about 100 pages of it. But here’s the thing. I thought I would take a quick look at the books I had left in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge just to plan my reading and I made the mistake of reading the first page of The Buddha in the Attic. Fast forward an hour and I haven’t moved and I’m half way through. Another hour and I was finished this short, haunting prose poem of a book.
The story is narrated in the first person plural, a veritable chorus of voices, the ‘we’ being the Japanese women who arrived in California by boat following World War 1 in 1919, clutching photographs of their prospective husbands whom they have agreed to marry sight unseen. Sentences are written like incantations, listing the individual experiences with no central focal point.
This is a beautiful kaleidoscopic manner of telling, with sentences and stories shimmering and catching the light making patterns and layering on top of each other to create a moving collective image. Some moments shine more than others and Otsuka’s brilliance is that she is able to make us care about this group of women precisely because we are only glimpsing individual stories through the subtle layering of their collective experience.
The opening chapter, entitled Come, Japanese! sets the scene on the boat as the women make their crossing to America, clutching photos of the handsome young men they believe to be their new husbands.
This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong
When they arrive, they are disillusioned by
the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock… the photographs we had been sent were 20 years old.
Their story is split into seven more sections, each reflecting a time in these women’s lives, from their first night with their new husbands; child birth; working life in lowly posts of servitude; watching their children grow up and grow away and through to an eventual acceptance and assimilation of a kind. Some will be lucky, more not. Some may even be happy.
The rhythmic, repetitive flow of the prose combined with the starkness of the details relayed, means this intensely lyrical prose verges on the edge of poetry. It is both intimate and expansive. I can understand how some readers have found the plurality of the voice distancing and hard to empathise with, given that there is no individual character to latch on to but I felt the opposite. The book is depicting the plight of the immigrant, and more importantly the immigrant woman and the collective nature of the experience brings it in to sharper focus. When Otsuka does allow a single voice to break through, the effect is therefore more startling;
They took us by the elbows and said quietly, ‘It’s time.’ They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die. I thought I was being smothered.
It is the rhythm and the beauty of the prose that pulls the reader through, the small stories we hear snippets of that are in their own way heartbreaking.
On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee
In the chapters Traitors and Last Day, Otsuka examines the experience of the Japanese internment of 1943 – not through descriptions of it, but through the women’s preparations for it. In these sections the women are given their names and their stories become more personal, just when they are being seen by political powers and the American people more as a group than as people.
Yasuko left her apartment in Long Beach with a letter from a man who was not her husband neatly folded up inside her compact at the bottom of her purse. Masayo left after saying goodbye to her youngest son, Masamichi, at the hospital in San Bruno, where he would be dead of the mumps by the end of the week… Sachiko left practising her ABCs as though it were just another ordinary day. Futaye, who had the best vocabulary of all of us, left speechless.
Instead of following the women to the internment camps, Otsuka switches attention to the Americans left behind and in the final chapter A Disappearance, the collective voice becomes theirs as they deal with, process and finally come to terms with what has happened to their Japanese friends and neighbours. I can understand why Otsuka did this, to provide a different point to view on the plight of the interned Japanese but it jarred a little with me, the final section lacking some of the depth and mystery of the previous chapters. I wanted to follow these women whose names I had just learned, not stay with the American neighbours who begin by forgetting their names and talking about them less to buying up their businesses and looting their homes.
Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress? What is their ultimate destination? Why were we not informed of their departure in advance?… Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they even really gone?
All too soon, the traces of the all these lives begin to disappear and only small things remain,
A tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day
It is the small things from this book that will remain with me, the finely crafted sentences, crystallising recognisable instances of a woman’s life, any woman’s life, which made me catch my breath with their haunting lyricism.
A beautiful and moving book indeed.
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