The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka, Fig Tree, £12.99, 129 pages

During the first two decades of the 20th century more than 20,000 young Japanese women journeyed by boat to Hawaii and the west coast of America to join their husbands. The men had already crossed the Pacific to find work, largely as labourers in the agricultural lands of the Californian valleys.

The husbands and wives had never previously met: the men couldn’t afford to return home to follow the normal rules of courtship, so they sent photographs of themselves instead. These pictures were hawked around likely families by matchmakers, an arrangement was made, and the wedding formalised in absentia. The women who married this way became known as “picture brides”.

For both husbands and wives it was a leap into the unknown, but for the women it was even more of an act of blind faith. Not only did they know little of where they were going but their husbands’ photographs, on which they had built their dreams of the future, often proved deceitful.

Some women arrived to find that the man in the photograph was someone else altogether, some that the picture had been taken years earlier, and others that the kind face and well-to-do appearance on display were a careful pose. The women thought they were heading off to big houses and the American dream but what they got was lovelessness, fruit-picking and accommodation in barns. By the time they realised, it was too late.

This potent history of diaspora, so rich in possibilities, is not just the backdrop to Julie Otsuka’s new book, it is the story itself. Her previous novel, When the Emperor was Divine, was about one Japanese-American family during the years of internment that followed Pearl Harbor. Here, her subject is the whole Japanese immigrant experience in the years that led up to the war.

This is not a novel in the traditional sense: there is no central character, no dialogue is longer than a sentence and there is no detailed narrative. Nor is it proper non-fiction – but rather a conglomeration of numerous thoroughly researched but unattributed personal histories. Otsuka’s authorial voice is the first-person plural, the “we” of the picture brides as a whole, while her incantatory, highly wrought prose hints at – or at least aspires to – poetry. She uses short, unadorned sentences, repetition and an undertow of sentiment. It is, in other words, a self-consciously literary construct.

The need to be all-inclusive means that Otsuka often resorts to lists. The wedding night following the arrival in San Francisco of a boatload of picture brides, for example, becomes an itemisation of coition: “That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word …They took us with grunts. They took us with groans. They took us with shouts and long-drawn-out moans.” They took them in a hundred other ways too, which she enumerates. The experiences – large and small – of a thousand picture brides are all ticked off with similarly stylised recitations.

Otsuka divides the lives of her amorphous heroines into eight stages – from the boat journey, through marriage and work as hardscrabble sharecroppers or housemaids, through to watching their children become proper Americans (“Our sons grew enormous. They insisted on eating bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of bean-paste soup. They refused to use chopsticks. They drank gallons of milk”) and finally their bewilderment as they are made to abandon their new lives and head off for the wartime internment camps, carrying nothing but a suitcase or a dead spouse’s ashes.

This is a novel way of recounting history and in some places Otsuka manages to seamlessly meld information and a palpable sense of what these lives were like. By telling a mass story Otsuka has debarred herself from the elements that propel fiction. Stirring together snippets of individual experience is like trying to bake a fruit cake using only raisins.

This is a sad tale – unremittingly so – but because there is no single figure to stand as an emblem of the communal travails she can’t interest the reader in the addictive vicissitudes of an individual life. The result is a book that aims for the epic but only reaches the intermittently affecting.

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