The Buddha in the Attic

Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio D

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The Buddha in the Attic
144 pages; Knopf
The camera may not lie, but men do. In Julie Otsuka's spare and stunning novel, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf), the young Japanese women who cross the Pacific to marry men they've never met discover they've been basing their expectations on decades-old photographs, sometimes of the wrong strangers entirely. This is just the first of many disappointments the "picture brides" encountered in early-20th-century California, a place of backbreaking farm labor and spirit-robbing city jobs. Yet there are also small triumphs in the new world—slow-building love, accomplished children, friendships with native-born Americans. All are cut short by World War II when, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these new citizens are sent to internment camps. "We heard that we could only bring with us one bag apiece so we sewed little cloth knapsacks for our youngest children, with their names embroidered on each," writes Otsuka. By using the collective "we" to convey a constantly shifting, strongly held group identity within which distinct individuals occasionally emerge and recede, Otsuka has created a tableau as intricate as the pen strokes her humble immigrant girls learned to use in letters to loved ones they'd never see again.
— Celia McGee