The journey starts in about 1900. Sailing to the United States is a group of Japanese "picture brides", paired to their new husbands via photos, letters and a matchmaker. These women narrate the book, not as "I", but in the first person plural, "we":
Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We know how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all . . . We knew how to pull weeds and chop kindling and haul water, and one of us - the rice miller's daughter - knew how to walk two miles into town with an eighty-pound sack of rice on her back without once breaking into a sweat.This style allows Otsuka to provide, in a small novel, a great deal of individualized detail about the women and their new lives in the United States. The women arrive here hopeful. But hope turns into hardship as they find themselves married to a stranger in a society where the deck is stacked against them because of their race, gender, the language barrier, even their diminutive size compared to Americans of European ancestry. Otsuka shows us these lives by using words sparingly, but with maximum impact; her choices can knock the wind out of you.
The novel ends in 1942, with the internment of all people of Japanese ancestry who lived in the Pacific Coast area of the U.S. This is a turn of events that the women on the ship, sailing to their new lives in the United States, could never have foreseen.
The Buddha in the Attic is a wonderful writing accomplishment, unique like a valuable gem, and highly recommended reading.