Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka

We read this as the selection of the month for Amanda’s book club. The meeting scheduled for the discussion also happened to be the Christmas party meeting, so it was quite awhile before Amanda reminded the group that there was a book to discuss. I was surprised to hear most of the women say that they’d had a hard time getting into this one, that it was “just one thing after another after another without a plot”, and thet “the details piled up one on top of the other like a list”. The words that came up most often were “monotonous” and “impersonal”.

I felt like the odd-one-out, unsure how to say what I felt without sounding like I was contradicting everybody else. To me, there seemed to be a lifetime of stories, more than just one woman’s plot, but that of many women. The piling on of details made it more real to me, more personal, more varied. Here’s what happened to this one, but that one experienced it differently, and another one adds a completely different nuance. “Tell me more, tell me what her story reminds you of,” was my thought. “Did that happen to you, too? Was your experience completely opposite?”

Usually, when an author tries to tell so many stories at once, the reader has to juggle long character lists and timelines. While I love Dickens, I remember the first time through each of his novels required lots of note-taking so as to remember what was happening and who was who. It wasn’t until after several readings, when I already knew the people and their stories, that I could relax and just enjoy the telling of them. In this concise little novel, we don’t have to keep characters sorted by name, we don’t have to untangle what happened to whom. We get a wide variety of stories all mixed together without the pressure of sorting them out logically.

Almost every other woman in the book club seemed especially put off by the third-person plural narrator. We came here, we did this and that. For some of us, this is how it was. For some of us, like that. For one of us, like so. For another one, thus. This telling of “our” story, instead of “my” story, struck the other members of the book club as distancing and cold. For me, it was this very narrative quirk that drew me in closer into the lives of the narrators. The style of the story’s telling gave me the impression that all these women were gathered in the same room at the same time. They were talking, reminiscing, interrupting each other. What was your first sight of America? Here was mine. Oh, the first time I laid eyes on my husband, let me tell you. This lady I worked for, what was she like? You’re lucky, my first job was worse. (And then the gossip) — Did you hear what they say happened to so-and-so? Nobody really knows, but the story is …  (And then the war) — Yes, I remember that day. What were you doing when you heard? Here’s how I heard, what I was doing.  And my daughter and her family… The plural narrative made these women almost physically present in the room with me. It was highly personal in a way that a traditional narrative wouldn’t have been.

As I was reading the later sections, about the WWII internments, I had found myself looking through my jumbled bookshelves for the first two books I’d ever read on that subject.  When I was about 12 years old, I read The Moved-Outers by Florence Crannell Means. I was startled by the discovery that this book had been written in 1945, while the events described were still fresh. And more startled by the fact that it had been written by an “outsider”. At a time in history when the prevailing attitude of the white majority was firmly in support of these internments, how did a white woman come to write a book for young people which called into question that whole premise? A couple of years later, in high school, I discovered Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. The details of the story I’d previously read in the children’s novel were already familiar, the sequences of events, the routines of camp life. But the difference came from hearing the story as told by an “insider”, hearing the emotional reactions and interior responses as they were felt by one particular girl and her family. The disruptions to family life sketched in the earlier book were explored in painfully personal detail by a woman who could say with certainty, “This is what  happened to my own family.”

In effect, Buddha in the Attic took one family’s story and multiplied it by all the women, turning one voice into a chattering roomful of voices. I wished there had been a longer discussion of Buddha in the Attic, which there probably would have been if the Christmas party hadn’t intervened after just a few minutes. Our own chattering roomful of voices was so occupied with tales of their own families that the book ended up forgotten in the excitement.