The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Poetic justice for picture brides. 

Synopsis of The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka: Julie Otsuka’s long-awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the picture brides’ extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.

My two cents

I have now read this book twice. The first time, I was in too much of a daze to write a coherent review. The second time merely confirmed what I knew about this book the first read: this one is special.

Told in the collective voice of Japanese picture brides as they recount the unfolding of their new lives in the US during the early 20th century, the melding of history in an almost poetic treatment is both unusual and enlightening.

I don't know too much about picture brides so I decided to look it up. Picture brides were so named because Japanese and Korean men who had immigrated to the US during the late 1900s decided to take wives and did so by choosing them based on pictures or photos provided by matchmakers. It was a modified practice of the traditional matchmaking wherein family members also had their say. It was basically the then-equivalent of the mail-order bride (source).

The book can be broken down into eight sections, which trace the lives of Japanese picture brides from their arrival up to the war, and hints of the impact on next generations to come:
  • Come, Japanese!
  • First Night
  • Whites
  • Babies
  • The Children
  • Traitors
  • Last Day
  • A Disappearance
In the author's notes in the back, there is an exhaustive list of references from which Otsuka drew these stories, which when collectively told provide a comprehensive and nuanced account of the struggles and challenges that these women faced and endured.

What I found surprising is that while told in collective, the voice is startlingly personal and intimate.

This entire book is a remembrance of an important piece of Japanese immigration in US history and of acknowledging the horrors of war and racial segregation.

Verdict: This book acknowledges the need to dust off the proverbial Buddha that has been put away in the attic. A remembrance of Japanese immigration to the US in the 1900s, this is the voice of the picture bride. Poetic justice indeed.

Uh oh 

The use of the collective "we" throughout has an almost hypnotic effect on the reader; I personally felt it was an interesting treatment. However, it does have a tedium to it and can potentially bore.


My love for the cover can't be expressed properly - it's such a beautiful cover for a beautifully written homage.

Interesting reading:

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall