Julie Otsuka's novel of Japanese picture brides
Julie Otsuka's "The Buddha in the Attic," about Japanese picture brides on the West Coast in the early 20th century, weaves many conflicting voices into one. Otsuka reads Sept. 23, 2011, at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
Julie OtsukaThe author reads from "The Buddha in the Attic" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com); 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com); and 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle, free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
When a narrative gimmick has a keen purpose behind it, it probably isn't a gimmick at all but an insight.
That's the case with "The Buddha in the Attic" (Knopf, 132 pp., $22), the second novel by Julie Otsuka, which is told entirely in the first-person plural.
Otsuka's narrators are the Japanese picture brides of the early 20th century who headed to the West Coast to join husbands they'd never met, men who weren't always what they represented themselves to be. In eight brief chapters, Otsuka follows the women from their moment of arrival through their marriages, motherhood and early middle-age, leading up to the outbreak of World War II and the internment-camp era.
The resulting book is a fascinating paradox: brief in span yet symphonic in scope, all-encompassing yet vivid in its specifics. Like a pointillist painting, it's composed of bright spots of color: vignettes that bring whole lives to light in a line or two, adding up to a vibrant group portrait.
Best of all, the novel is informed by Otsuka's sure knowledge that the only way a collective voice can be animated and authentic is if it's filled with internal contradictions.
Otsuka is the author of "When the Emperor Was Divine," one of the finest fiction debuts of 2002 and a "Seattle Reads" pick of the Seattle Public Library in 2005. While "Emperor" focused on the internment camp experiences of a Californian Japanese-American family, depicted from the points of view of mother, father, daughter and son, "The Buddha in the Attic" aims to capture a whole population's immigrant experience.
Amazingly, it succeeds — thanks, in part, to Otsuka's prodigious research and her artful, agile distillation of the facts.
In prose that's as close to music as prose can be, Otsuka captures the fears and anticipations of young women leaving behind everything that's familiar to them on the chance that they'll find something better in America. As in "Emperor," Otsuka slips in wry moments: "Remind me one more time, I'm Mrs. Who?" She also makes clear the strictures governing feminine behavior in early 20th-century Japan: "A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist."
The myriad differences between the women traveling together are caught with truly kaleidoscopic effect as point-of-view changes from sentence to sentence. Once the women reach these shores, the variety of husbands that chance delivers to them (gentle men, brutes, successes, failures) and the various workplace scenarios they confront (farm labor, domestic service, start-up entrepreneurship) become almost dizzying.
Their luck, as far as the bigotry, acceptance or understanding they meet with from whites, is just as unpredictable; and the foreignness of America is matched, within a decade, only by the foreignness of their own American-born children: "They were taller than we were, and heavier. They were loud beyond belief."
For parents and children alike, the outbreak of war followed by "evacuation" to internment camps far from the coast is a shocker. Otsuka is needle-precise in showing how the smallest logistics of dismantling your life in response to government decree can be devastating and disorienting.
The most intriguing historical chapter left for Otsuka to explore is how the internees came home from the camps to be reintegrated with postwar American society. That gradual phasing back to life-as- usual doesn't immediately suggest strong narrative possibilities. But if anyone can pull it off — I'm convinced by "Buddha" — Otsuka can.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: email@example.com
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