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Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka Published in 2011 and now out in paperback The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka explores the experiences of Japanese women who arrived in the United States as mail order brides, a generation before the Second World War. These women came to husbands they had never met, but who promised a better life than they would have had in Japan. Of course most of these men were not, in fact, well to do – they worked as labourers on fruit farms, in laundries, restaurants or shops. Some of the men were kind – some were not. Some of the women left lives of physical hardship seeking an easier life, many wanted to avoid prostitution as their only means of support. Trusting only in photographs, they were prepared to cross the ocean, leave behind their families, and start a new life in America.

Some of the women did find a better life, some did not. We follow these women through the first night in the bed of their husband, through childbirth and into their married life. Some found love, or at least a sort of happiness with their husbands, some found only a life full of bitterness and regret. Some couples prospered, and as their children grew they did indeed make a far better life than they might have had in the land of their birth.

Their stories are mesmerizing – told with such clarity and beauty by Julie Otsuka, the reader is swept along in this tide of women’s lives. She brings us to the bombing of Pear Harbor and the beginning of the incarceration of the Japanese in America – citizens or not, they are all now considered a threat to the security of the United States. Whole neighbourhoods were emptied of their residents – the maids, the gardeners, the man who had the best laundry, the green grocer, the farm hands in the orchards – all disappeared. Homes were abandoned, the residents not understanding that they might never see that home again. They left their possessions – perhaps even a small Buddha, brought across the ocean many years before, left in a corner of the attic.

As years passed and houses deteriorated others moved in, some of the neighbours had already taken what they could use when they realized the Japanese would not soon be coming home.

This novel is a great companion piece to another novel by Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine, about the lives of the imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II, and to The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, the story of a Chinese man who many years after his Japanese friend disappeared makes an attempt to discover her fate.

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