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by Julie Otsuka
Reviewed by Judy Lim

Julie Otsuka, author of the wonderful When the Emperor was Divine, has produced an exceptional novel in The Buddha in the Attic. It is a novel seemingly without plot and seemingly without characters. Yet the characters exist. There are a multitude of them. They are the women who travelled from Japan to California in the first decades of the twentieth century to meet the men who would become their husbands.

These women ranged from pre-pubescent girls to widows in their thirties. They crossed the ocean together, leaving their villages and towns; their beloved mothers, fathers and siblings; and their friends. They left their homes for the unknown. Many of them were told their husbands-to-be were handsome professional men living a good life in the Promised Land. But the reality was often different, and they later realised that the letters they had received were "written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts". Most of these women became wives to labourers and small landholders with few prospects.

Then the babies started to come. Some of them were wanted, some were not. Some of them were loved and protected, some were resented and neglected. Some became labourers on their family's farms as soon as they were able. Some excelled at school and aspired to a life that their mothers could not imagine living. The children confounded their mothers, speaking English and considering themselves Americans. "Soon we could barely recognize them. They were taller than we were, and heavier. They were loud beyond belief. They preferred their own company to ours and pretended not to understand a word that we said …. Mostly they were ashamed of us."

With the arrival of World War II, the women found that their lives were again moving into uncharted waters. They had become a part of their communities, entrenched in society and for some, financially comfortable. But when Japan became involved in the war, the Japanese were looked at differently. The men began to disappear, taken away as potential threats to the country, and finally, the women were forced to leave their communities and head for detention. Some of the women left their homes with pride, some left in fear, some with nothing and some with as much as they could carry. But all of them left knowing that they were once again walking into the unknown.

Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. One of us left with her hand held over her mouth and hysterically laughing. A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed.

This story is told about a community of women, but each of them is an individual and Otsuka names many of them. This provides a quality of intimacy and allows us to perceive the similarities of this group of new immigrants as well as their many differences. Otsuka's style is simple, spare and minimalist. Her words flow effortlessly and become almost poetic. By taking snapshots of the women at each stage of their lives as immigrants she has created a collage of their hopes, dreams and disappointments that will resonate with the reader for a long time.

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