Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hotel's on the Corner, but Buddha's in the Attic

As usual, I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford after all the hoopla of book awards and raving, critical reviews. By now, a Hollywood writer has penned the screenplay [or it’s already made], a theater group has performed it on the stage, and it's been translated into twenty languages.

Gifted to me by my friend Wingate, who read it when it was “hot,” I just got around to it, and so, I’m late to not only the reading but the review.

Set in Seattle in the 1980s {I think}, Chinese-American Henry Lee pauses in front of the Panama Hotel, a prominent Japanese establishment closed since World War II, and notes that the new owners in their renovation efforts have discovered trunks, suitcases, and boxes left behind by the Japanese-Americans who were removed by the US government to interment camps in the panicky wake of Pearl Harbor.

Seeing these items triggers an event in Henry’s past, and so begins his memories of his own youth, the discrimination he suffered, and the young Japanese girl he met whose life intertwined with his own.  Flipping between the present and the past, Ford’s novel looks at a ugly time in American history from a different perspective, that of a Chinese boy, and has moments of rawness and honesty, but overall, the story became formulaic, and way before the end, predictable. As much as I liked Henry Lee, he seems a bit too resourceful and the people placed in his path convenient for his purposes.

I don’t know how this happens to me, but it did. I completed the Ford book a week ago and then picked up another novel from my lengthy list: Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

The title of the novel, which is actually quite witty, becomes significant in the last pages [I actually chuckled], but what blew me away is Otuska’s narrator choice of first person plural.

Yes.  The collective we.

Imaginative, effective, and perfect.

“We” are the Japanese women who arrived in California after World War I and were set to marry men they had never met and begin lives that they imagined promised more than their native Japan: “ On the boat we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were.  That the crowd in men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs.  That the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts.”

A short novel, with curt chapter titles, Buddha in the Attic moves chronologically as “we” began lives as wives, mothers, and workers and eventually led to the same fate as the Japanese of Ford’s novel and in American history.

Of the two, Otsuka’s novel stirred me more -- perhaps, because it lacked the sentimentality of Henry Lee and focused on the effects of displacement, disappointment, and disappearance not on the individual -- but a whole community. Well done.

BTW: Forgive me for my corny, blog title.

Only not.

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