I read a stunning book recently called The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Wonderful, wonderful book. And short. There were 129 pages in total. I started it in the morning, finding myself very absorbed, finished it by 3:36 PM. (Having many bus rides to catch also helped).
The first thing about this book is how well-researched it was. The acknowledgements section lists 36 books. Otsuka says that these are not even all of the resources that she used, but were only those she found particularly useful. (Remember again, this is only a 129-page book). You could feel the amount of research that went into this because of how natural the descriptions felt. Though Otsuka was not writing about a time and place that she lived in, I would not have known this if I never read the author’s page at the back of the book. While some stories also want to show you just how great their researching skills are by inserting every random fact they learned in their books, Otsuka refrains from this and gives the reader only what you need to know. Again, it’s natural. Otsuka has nothing to prove. Instead, she has a story to tell.
Or perhaps stories would be a more accurate. It is almost impossible to say how many characters are in the novel. Written in first person collective (“we did this” and “we found this”, rather than “I” or “you”), the story seems to encompass the total experience of her subjects. It is strange how this is done. I have read short stories, and sections of novels, where this type of narrative voice was applied. Other than The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (another one of my favorites), I have yet to come across another novel that maintained this voice for the entire duration of the story. (That is not to say that these are the only two novels ever written in this voice. There are others, just not ones I have come across yet). Particularly noteworthy is that The Virgin Suicides employs the voice of five brothers. Otsuka, meanwhile, grabs from the voices of an entire generation. While this may seem like it is too much and too close to a mess to work, it does succeed. Quite beautifully, it succeeds.
The book feels like a spinning globe portrait from which all sides are shown. You can say what you like about your opinions of the book, but the one thing that cannot be argued is that this is not representational enough. Women of all experiences are shown here. There does not seem to be just one viewpoint that the novel is trying to make or one concept to force upon the readers. There are women who came to America and found great success, women who found great tragedy, women who found both the highs and the lows of a new country, women who did not even make it over to America, women who lived for years, women who died just after arrival, women who bore many children, women who bore no children at all, women who found the dreams that they came to America for, women who found much more than they ever anticipated, women who found themselves ignored and lost among the other statistics of immigrant females, and so on.
Plot-wise, there is not much that I would say to a reader before they began reading. I only knew that this book was about Japanese immigrant women when I began. I feel that is the best attitude to go in with. It is not that the book is particularly heavy on plot, or that there are so many twists and turns that it would be unfair of me to spoil them for you prematurely, but there is a sort of arc to the story that is best experienced with unblemished eyes. I want to encourage all those with any interest in different lives to read this book. It is not something to be regretted. I know I have only finished it today, but I have not stopped thinking about the women who made this journey—fictional or otherwise.
Pair this with: The 1993 film The Joy Luck Club. Yes, this is based on a novel of the same name, but I must confess to not having yet read that book. The film has the challenge of taking eight pairs of mothers and daughters and telling a cohesive story while still paying equal attention to all of these characters. In a novel, this is somewhat less daunting of a task. In a film, though, especially one that has only a certain amount of minutes in which it can logically play for, this is tricky. However, the film accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. Focusing more on individual stories than The Buddha in the Attic does, the movie especially highlights the struggles of communication that come between (or perhaps does not come between) women of different generations. To get inside the heads of both and understand the world from all angles is a beautiful thing to witness, and this film pulls that off.
If you have any experience with these stories (and even if you don’t), feel free to leave comments.