Friday 25 July 2014

The Buddha in the Attic

(July 2014)

Another one of those books that leaves me unable to do anything other than gibber fractured and entirely inadequate praise. This is an astonishing work. I never thought I could be made to feel so emotionally rent by what amounts to one hundred and thirty pages of lists.

Here’s a phrase for you to conjure with: ware ware nihonjin. Those first two words are pronounced ‘wa-leh’ and as a whole it means ‘we Japanese’. I am of the strong opinion that every time it’s used as the opening move for a conversational exchange I should be legally allowed, no, legally obliged, to punch the speaker in the face. Hard. Like the phrase ‘politically correct’, it’s an almost infallible indicator that what will follow will be somewhere on the continuum from clichéd group-think to ill-founded essentialism to flat-out racism. I have never, never, heard it used and not had to utilize some form of deep-breathing stress-control.

So it’s all the more astounding that I loved The Buddha in the Attic so much, as it’s almost entirely written in the first-person plural. The story relates the multitudinous experience of Japanese mail-order brides immigrating to America in the 1920’s:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers had promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time. The Kinokuniya Hotel. The Mikado. The Hotel Ogawa. They took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was we were told.

It’s as mesmeric as it is agonizing; the almost musical iteration of experiences at once both disparate and unified; the countless expression and re-expression of variations on the theme of the doubly, triply, disposed. We follow the women through their lives, and deaths, of toil and hardship from the boat to the internment camps and your heart is never not in your mouth. Tenant farmers, maids, housekeepers, dry-cleaners, whores. Mothers to children who are of but so clearly not of them and theirs, and through it all mistrusted and abused by their hosts. The repetition is almost lyrical and the effect is of a death by a thousand cuts as each individual life, each brutally intimate experience, is played out as a single facet of this chillingly brilliant whole. This is a small but perfect gem of a book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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.


  1. I didn't pick up the 我々 bit when I read it, but you're totally right. Nice link.

    I read this a few years ago. Finally got around to reading her other novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, but didn't find it quite as affecting.

    1. In a fit of post-Buddha enthusiasm I went and bought her other book. Given what you say, I might wait on it a while. Don't want it spoiling the resonances of this one. Over a month later and I'm still thinking about it (on which note, thanks for the comment and sorry it took so ling to reply).