Julie Otsuka’s second novel is a quiet and disquieting story of the Issei. Written in the first-person plural from the point of view of the picture brides who become wives and then mothers, The Buddha in the Attic begins with the uneasy journey across the ocean. We follow the women and girls (as young as the early teens) as they experience disappointment and heartbreak with only flashes of satisfaction and hope. All the time there is a sense of impending doom that will snatch all of them away — and of course it happens.
The narrative structure allows for multiple and sometimes contrary impressions while providing a uniform voice. Consider the experience of the women on their first night with their husbands.
The tied us up and took us facedown on threadbare carpets that smelled of mouse droppings and mold. They took us frenziedly, on top of yellow-stained sheets. They took us easily, and with a minimum of fuss, for some of us had been taken many times before. They took us drunkenly. They took us roughly, recklessly, and with no mind for our pain.
The voice is most effective when capturing the paranoid time after Pearl Harbor was bombed and men are being rounded up and taken away after possibly having their name on a list.
The list was written in indelible red ink. The list was typewritten on index cards. The list did not exist. The list existed, but only in the mind of the director of military intelligence, who was known for his perfect recall. The list was a figment of our imaginations.
The Buddha in the Attic is a short book that also happens to be a quick read — Otsuka has chosen her words her words with care and the text is tight enough to repel rain. It is among the best fictional renderings of the stories of early Asian Americans who were allowed to exist in this country but never truly live.