I have set myself the challenge of reading all the books on the IMPAC (International Dublin Literary Award) short list – 10 in total – before the winner is announced in early June.

I am currently on number three, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane. Thus far, I have really enjoyed the idiosyncratic and diverse mix.

For now, I want to focus on my first read, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka’s novel tells the story of Japanese mail-order brides who embarked on a journey into the unknown hinterland of America during the interwar period, and into the arms of men that they had never met, and how their lives unfolded thereafter in an adopted homeland.

A large part of the magic of this book lies in its style, which is inextricably bound to the poignancy and tragedy of the narrative that it delivers.

The style is unusual and unique. The Buddha in the Attic is not about one woman, or any named women in particular, but about many. It is a composite narrative where individual stories and happenings merge to reveal, perhaps surprisingly, something in the plural that feels even more powerful than anything an individual voice might provide.

We first meet the anonymous group on the boat that is transporting them from the Japan they grew up in to a land they can only imagine. As they prepare for their new lives, they discuss amongst themselves how they should behave in their new homeland:

‘A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.’

They are excited and hopeful, and also clearly desperate to leave Japan for a better life:

‘I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, “He’ll do.”‘

On arrival, hope for this better life is quickly shattered. The husbands, strangers who greet them, are not what they expected:

‘They were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors…’

The men are desperate too, and quickly claim their mail-order brides:

‘They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.’

Thus ‘owned’, the identity of these transported women becomes subsumed in their roles as wives, workers, and mothers, their own selves disappearing in an unwelcoming world:

‘Say “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.’

Not all managed to overcome the disappointment and disillusionment that greeted them on arrival in America:

‘One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.’

There were few alternatives. Returning to Japan was not an option:

‘If you come home, our fathers had written to us, you will disgrace the entire family.’

We follow the cycles of their lives. Babies arrive, rarely joyously:

‘We gave birth six weeks after our husband had left us to a child we now wish we had never given away.’

Despite all this, hope continued for some until the very end, ‘Still, they dreamed’, even though they knew for certain, particularly post Pearl Harbour, that their presence in this unwelcoming land was finite:

‘And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.’

As they gradually disappear, so too does the voice of the first person plural, shifting from ‘we’ to ‘they’:

‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town.’

It feels as if the ‘invisible world’ that they inhabited has finally engulfed them, and no trace of their ever being, and mattering, remains:

‘All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.’

CQ

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