The Buddha in the Attic

By Julie Otsuka

(Knopf Doubleday, $22, 144 pages)

Who is this author?

Julie Otsuka, 49, is a native Californian of Japanese heritage who was born in Palo Alto, California. She hoped to become a painter and earned degrees from Yale and Columbia universities, but it turns out that she paints with words.

Her first novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” was based on her family’s experiences during World War II: her grandfather was arrested as a suspected Japanese spy the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks and her mother, uncle and grandmother were placed in internment camps in Utah. It won her great praise: it was a New York Times Notable Book, San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. Her new novel is “The Buddha in the Attic.” In a Barnes & Noble interview, she said:

“I came to New York to be a painter, and failed. My background in the visual arts, however, has definitely influenced the way I work—the process of painting is not all that different from that of writing. You wake up, go to your studio or your desk, you sketch out a scene, it’s all wrong, you make it a little warmer, a little cooler, it’s still wrong…Because I’d failed as a painter, I felt that I had nothing to lose when I began writing, which made it easier, somehow.”

What is this book about?

“The Buddha in the Attic” is about a group of Japanese “picture brides,” sent here in the early 1900s to marry total strangers: American men. The book is divided into eight parts, beginning with their journey to California by boat, during which they imagine what their new lives will be like and share pictures of the men who are waiting for them. Then we see them as new wives, often in troubled marriages, as field workers picking fruit, as servants to white families, as mothers whose children often reject their Japanese roots and finally as captives in those internment camps during World War II.  It is a moving story of a search to find community and a new home. Some of the women enjoy successful marriages and lives and begin to feel like Americans, but when the war begins they find they are no longer sure they can trust each other. The book was a finalist for a National  Book Award in fiction this year.

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers call Otsuka’s writing poetic and artistic, praising its “economy and precision” and its precise imagery and intimacy. She tells this story in women’s voices, who speak like a chorus, narrating what happens to the group. Then she writes in the voices of white people who do not understand the women’s feelings or their lives. While the book is set in the past, it can be read as a meditation on a very current concern: the difficulties of immigrant’s lives, no matter what their nationality.

What others are saying:

“Otsuka’s prose is precise and rich with imagery. Readers will be inspired to draw their own parallels between the experiences of these women and the modern experience of immigration. By the time readers realize that the story is headed toward the internment of the Japanese, they are hopelessly engaged and will finish this exceptional book profoundly moved,” says Publisher’s Weekly.

Library Journal calls the book “unforgettable and essential both for readers and writers.”

“A lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson,” says Kirkus Reviews.

“Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry,” says The New York Times Book Review.

 “A stunning feat of empathetic imagination and emotional compression, capturing the experience of thousands of women,” says Vogue.

When is it available?

“The Buddha in the Attic” is available now at the Hartford Public Library.

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