If you haven’t already heard of this 2012 Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction, then pay attention. The Buddha in the Attic is technically nothing new; many readers of historical fiction are already familiar with novels focusing on the lives of Asian women immigrants in the U.S., such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls. Yet it is the voice of the story which makes Julie Otsuka’s novel different.
Written from the first-person-plural point of view, this story details the struggles of Japanese women immigrants as a group. As a result, the history leading up to the American government’s internment of the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in 1942 emerges more vibrantly than before. Using plural pronouns such as “us,” Otsuka establishes “characters,” or at least, a sense thereof, which then allows readers to easily connect with the group voice. She additionally makes a collective story of hardship and disappointment into a legend as her narrator describes how “some of us” suffered or adapted differently to racism, marriage, love, childbirth, work, childrearing, etc..
The fact that the novel is a short read—just eight chapters—increases the impact of the group voice. The repetitive nature of the first-person-plural point of view can become overbearing at times, but ultimately it evokes readers’ senses. Readers will find it hard not to imagine sitting as a formal yet invisible observer of the Japanese women immigrants as they flash through the scenes of their lives. It is consequently difficult to resist investing one’s own wishes and hopes with the “characters” in The Buddha in the Attic. Overall, I highly recommend the novel, at the most for its strong style, and at the least to learn a bit of history which may be new to you.