Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
I have low tolerance for people messing with conventional narrative modes, because it’s often done poorly. I like experimentation, but if you’re taking on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf you’d better have some chops, Author Person. Don’t sneer about how most people don’t get what you’re trying to do. We get it. But almost no one is good at it, and I don’t want to be distracted by an author’s “groundbreaking choices” when I’m trying to suspend my disbelief.
So, you can imagine my initial reaction when I realized that Otsuka planned to narrate all of Buddha in the Attic in first person plural. Oh dear. It begins, “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.” And continues in that style for 129 pages.
The hubris of it would have irritated me enough to put the book aside, but that would have necessitated putting it down. I pulled it from the shelf of a bookshop in Seattle, read the first page, continued reading to the counter, read it from the register, down the stairs, ran into the doorjamb, and kept reading up the street.
This is an excellent book, enhanced by its narrative structure. Slow clap, Ms. Otsuka.
On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.
Had they told us everything we needed to know? Hold your teacup with both hands, stay out of the sun, never say more than you have to.
…smooth black stones from the river that ran behind our house, a lock of hair from a boy we had once touched, and loved, and promised to write, even though we knew we never would.
Our father went out to fetch a bucket of water from the well and did not return, and our mother never mentioned him even once after that. It was as though he never even existed. I stared down into that well for years.
…we tried to make the best of what we had. We cut out pictures of cakes from magazines and hung them on the walls.
We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died… We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.
Letters from our mothers written to us on the day we left home. I can still see your footprints in the mud down by the river.
A few more of our men disappeared every day. We tried to keep ourselves busy and grateful for little things. A friendly nod from a neighbor. A hot bowl of rice. A bill paid on time. A child safely put to bed.
There was a boy from Brawley who had just learned how to tell time who left constantly checking his watch. “It keeps on changing,” he said.
moon rabbit – Many cultures see a rabbit in the markings on the moon. In Japanese folklore, the rabbit is said to be pounding ingredients for rice cake.
Fan-tan – A gambling game
Snow-light – A lantern made of snow
Bell cricket – A Japanese cricket known for its song (video)
Making a baby into a “day visitor” is a euphemism for infanticide.
Freeing of the Insects – “A festival in Japan on May 28 during which vendors sell insects in tiny bamboo cages. Those who purchase the diminutive pets keep them in or near the house during the summer months so that they can hear their songs in the evening. Then, on a day in late August or early September, they gather in public parks and at temples or shrines to set the insects free. When the creatures realize they have been released, the former captors listen to them burst into their individual sounds.” I love this. -ed.