In the Japanese art of sumi-e, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged. Although Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California…she seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of sumi-e…Proof arrived almost a decade ago…with the publication of her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, a spare but resonant portrait of one Japanese-American family's daily life, at home and in the internment camps, during World War II. Now she returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive.
The New York Times Book Review
In the early 1900s, numerous Japanese mail order brides came to America seeking better lives. Otsuka's (When the Emperor was Divine) latest novel paints a delicate, heartbreaking portrait of these women. Using a collective first-person narrator ("On the boat we were mostly virgins."), Otsuka looks at the experiences of these "picture brides," organizing their stories into themes which include: their arrival in America; their first nights with their husbands; their interactions with white people; their children; and finally, the experience of World War II. Each section is beautifully rendered, a delicate amalgam of contrasting and complementary experiences. Readers will instantly empathize with these unnamed women as they adjust to American culture, a remarkable achievement considering Otsuka's use of the collective voice. Otsuka's prose is precise and rich with imagery. Readers will be inspired to draw their own parallels between the experiences of these women and the modern experience of immigration. By the time readers realize that the story is headed toward the internment of the Japanese, they are hopelessly engaged and will finish this exceptional book profoundly moved. (Aug.)
“Exquisitely written. . . . An understated masterpiece…that unfolds with great emotional power. . . . Destined to endure.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
“Arresting and alluring. . . . A novel that feels expansive yet is a magical act of compression.” —Chicago Tribune
“A stunning feat of empathetic imagination and emotional compression, capturing the experience of thousands of women.” —Vogue
“Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry. . . . Filled with evocative descriptive sketches…and hesitantly revelatory confessions.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A fascinating paradox: brief in span yet symphonic in scope, all-encompassing yet vivid in its specifics. Like a pointillist painting, it’s composed of bright spots of color: vignettes that bring whole lives to light in a line or two, adding up to a vibrant group portrait.” —The Seattle Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . Told in a first-person plural voice that feels haunting and intimate, the novel traces the fates of these nameless women in America. . . . Otsuka extracts the grace and strength at the core of immigrant (and female) survival and, with exquisite care, makes us rethink the heartbreak of eternal hope. Though the women vanish, their words linger.” —More
“Spare and stunning. . . . 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.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“With great daring and spectacular success, she has woven countless stories gleaned from her research into a chorus of the women’s voices, speaking their collective experience in a plural ‘we,’ while incorporating the wide range of their individual lives. . . . The Buddha in the Attic moves forward in waves of experiences, like movements in a musical composition. . . . By its end, Otsuka’s book has become emblematic of the brides themselves: slender and serene on the outside, tough, weathered and full of secrets on the inside.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country. . . . Otsuka illuminates the challenges, suffering and occasional joy that they found in their new homeland. . . . Wrought in exquisite poetry, each sentence spare in words, precise in meaning and eloquently evocative, like a tanka poem, this book is a rare, unique treat. . . . Rapturous detail. . . . A history lesson in heartbreak.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“[Otsuka] brazenly writes in hundreds of voices that rise up into one collective cry of sorrow, loneliness and confusion. . . . The sentences are lean, and the material reflects a shameful time in our nation’s past. . . . Otsuka winds a thread of despair throughout the book, haunting the reader at every chapter. . . . Otsuka masterfully creates a chorus of the unforgettable voices that echo throughout the chambers of this slim but commanding novel, speaking of a time that no American should ever forget.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Daring. . . . Frequently mesmerizing. . . . Otsuka has the moves of cinematographer, zooming in for close-ups, then pulling back for wide lens group shots. . . . [Otsuka is] a master of understatement and apt detail. . . . Her stories seem rooted in curiosity and a desire to understand.” —Bookpage
“Precise, focused. . . . Penetrating. . . . See it and you’ll want to pick it up. Start reading it and you won’t want to put it down. . . . A boldly imagined work that takes a stylistic risk more daring and exciting than many brawnier books five times its size. Even the subject matter is daring. . . . Specific, clear, multitudinous in its grasp and subtly emotional.” —The Huffington Post
In her acclaimed When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka wrought third-person narratives of a northern California Japanese family facing internment and alienation during World War II. Now she gives us a luminous second novel, setting off from the early 20th century on a ship of "picture brides" headed from Japan to San Francisco to meet Japanese workers who have arranged to marry them. Otsuka works an enchantment upon her readers—no Sturm und Drang here—and leaves us haunted and astonished at the powers of her subtlety and charms. This time she employs a choral-like narrative expressed in the third-person plural, with a gentle use of repetitive phrasing ("One of us…"; "Some of us…") punctuated by small, italicized utterances representing individual voices. The results are cumulatively overwhelming, as we become embedded in the hope, disenchantment, courage, labor, and resignation of these nameless women and their families across four decades. Did they think all their compromises, their search for community, meant that they had found a place here in America? Or, just as they had been upon their arrival in California, were they mistaken about what this land had to offer them? VERDICT Unforgettable and essential both for readers and writers. [See Prepub Alert, 2/14/11.]—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Otsuka, whose first novel (When the Emperor Was Divine, 2003) focused on one specific Japanese-American family's plight during and after internment, takes the broad view in this novella-length consideration of Japanese mail-order brides making a life for themselves in America in the decades before World War II.
There are no central characters. A first-person-plural chorus narrates the women's experiences from their departure from Japan until they are removed from their homes and shipped to the camps, at which point the narration is taken over by clueless whites. Rather than following an individual story, Otsuka lists experience after experience, piling name upon name. Voyaging across the Pacific to California, the women's emotions range from fear to excitement, but most, even those leaving behind secret lovers, are hopeful. Reality sets in when they meet their husbands, who are seldom the men they seemed from their letters and photographs. And the men's reactions to their new wives vary as much as the women's. Some are loving, some abusive. For all their differences, whether farm workers, laundrymen, gardeners or struggling entrepreneurs, they share a common outsider status. Soon the majority of women who stay married—some die or run off or are abandoned—are working alongside their husbands. They begin to have babies and find themselves raising children who speak English and consider themselves American. And the women have become entrenched; some even have relationships with the whites around them; many are financially comfortable. But with the arrival of the war against Japan come rumors. Japanese and white Americans look at each other differently. Loyalty is questioned. Anti-Japanese laws are passed. And the Japanese themselves no longer know whom to trust as more and more of them disappear each day. Once they are truly gone, off to the camps, the whites feel a mix of guilt and relief, then begin to forget the Japanese who had been their neighbors.
A lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson.