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.

The best parts of Buddha in the Attic by Julie 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.

12 thoughts on “Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

  1. This sounds so good that I just put it on hold at my library! I’m reading “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” and it’s just not that funny. I haven’t laughed out loud even once. She’s entertaining, certainly. But the books is not that good.
    I apologize if she a blogger friend of yours. Or with my luck, your sister.


  2. Bweh? You are crazy! Jenny is hilarious, and yes we’re friends. In fact, there’s a photo of me in that book pretending to kill her with a meat cleaver. Good times.


  3. This was the saddest most disturbing book I have read in a long time….it does stay with you and the truth is not often pretty. I must say though it was not a funny entertaining book in any way for me.


  4. If you liked the first-person plural device, you might like “Then We Came To The End” by Joshua Ferris. But you don’t have to take my word for it!


  5. I had the same reaction to the books – disbelief and she was going to do the WHOLE thing in first person plural, and an utter inability to put it down. So good.


  6. “The Virgin Suicides” is a great book done in the first person plural style and I think Faulkner used it in a story or book once.


  7. The line “I don’t want to be distracted by an author’s “groundbreaking choices” when I’m trying to suspend my disbelief” is one of the best sentences you have ever written. I read the whole blog post out loud to my husband (which renders the your voice in what person ? IDK). Adding the Audible version to the queue.


  8. i also used to collect cricket cages. look them up on ebay. they say the traditiin started during the chinese census. the census takers would get lonely traveling on foot for long periods of time and would carve the cages to pass the time and then find a cricket for company. some cages are very elaborate and look like cages and some are beautifully carved tubes that look like lipstick cases.


  9. Ive had an ectopic pregnacy, had to have a tube removed and it was heart breaking for my husband and I! Now im 34 & its prob not going to happen. Your comment is very ignorant. Grow up!Report this comment as spam or abuse


  10. @Mirta, I am assuming your comment refers to the “definition” portion of the post. It was not a comment directed at anyone, it was to explain some of the vocabulary in the book. It was not ignorant at all, but rather informative.


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