Monday, May 28, 2012

Risks pay off | The Buddha in the Attic

While I had high hopes for The Buddha in the Attic, I don't think I ever really expected to like it. Another example of my prejudices against popular, well-received books. Another example of my pervading literary cynicism. But truth be told, The Buddha in the Attic is an excellent book and it really deserves more credit than I would ever be able to give it.

What makes The Buddha in the Attic exceptional? What makes it worth your time? To begin with, the surprisingly successful use of first-person plural. Julie Otsuka uses this writing style in a way that emphasizes its inclusiveness and keeps the pace sharply in-tune. Everyone belongs to the narrating whole - individuals stand out, but are not relevant on their own. Otsuka is telling a bigger story, one that includes all the angles. It's a risky approach, but here it pays off nicely.

Then there's the story itself. The Buddha in the Attic tells of the Japanese immigrants living in California in the early 20th century. It's an uncomfortable story in many regards, gently emphasizing the prevalent racism of the era. Otsuka's multiple characters can feel vaguely bland when viewed through such a culturally gentled lens, but the stories are so short and to-the-point that the characters never truly stumble because of it.

But really, what makes The Buddha in the Attic a much better book than I expected was how the clean writing and story met in a series of powerful paragraphs:
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.
Using few embellishments and scant pages, Otsuka manages to create these intensely moving scenes. Together, these form the bulk of the "novel", which is really more a collection of situations and fragments tied together by shared (yet usually different) experiences. The result is something quite special, and certainly worth reading.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this book was very good too. It is the first time I've actually liked a book that uses the first-person plural.

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