Saturday, December 03, 2011

Otsuka weaves a haunting, powerful tale in The Buddha in the Attic

Book 123: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Lyrical, yet muscular, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is an unconventional novel that relies on hundreds of voices to tell a single story

In less than 130 pages, Otsuka tells the compelling story of a generation of  Japanese women who travel to an unknown land to begin a new life with men who are strangers to them. The novel was short-listed for the 2011 National Book Award.

The unknown land is America. The strangers are Japanese bachelors, most years older than the young women, who labor at the bottom rung of American society -- itinerant laborers living in barns, shanties and tents. 

The women are a source of sex, an extra set of hands picking strawberries or plowing a field and, finally, the foundation of Japanese-American families. Families that are uprooted and relocated to remote desert or mountainous internment camps following Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II.

Typically, this story -- a sad chapter in American history -- would be told through the voice of a single narrator. The Buddha in the Attic draw its power -- and its haunting lyricism -- from Otsuka's decision to tell the story using hundreds of voices rather than one.

By doing so, she is is able to tap a wider range of experiences and to elevate the story from that of an individual to a people. This is an extraordinary novel whose story lingers long after the book has been put away.

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