I love long, character-driven, cultural books, but I know I tend to put off reading them. I want 2019 to be a year for better habits though, so I finally picked up the much-recommended historical fiction novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee… and it absolutely lived up to the hype.
About the book: Sunja is the only daughter of a hard-working Korean couple who cherish her. But when she discovers she is pregnant and that the father is already married, she leaves her family and their hopes for her behind to move to Japan with an ailing minister in an effort to spare her family from disgrace. Through war and prejudice, she discovers how difficult life can be for Koreans in Japan, and also how difficult it will always be for her to avoid the influential man who impregnated her. Her choices will affect every member of her family in her own generation and beyond.
“Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.”
I didn’t know that Pachinko was a Japanese gambling game before reading this book. I didn’t remember that Japan annexed Korea in 1910 or that Korea split at the end of WWII- my memory for details (like dates) is vague at best. Honestly, I didn’t even remember this book’s synopsis when I picked up the novel earlier this month, which meant I was in for a lot of eye-opening surprises.
This novel covers a lot of ground, spanning from 1910 to 1989, with chapters set in Korea, Japan, and America. The historical background is filtered through the experiences of this fictional family- making this a story about people, community, and culture rather than a moralizing history lesson. The significance of events are made plain through the consequences these characters face, seemingly through little or no fault of their own. The history is important, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to supplement Pachinko with a little outside reading (or at least Googling) to brush up your knowledge, but Min Jin Lee has penned an ambitious emotional saga here, not a persuasive essay. She emphasizes the complexities of the relationships between countries, between immigrants, and between family members. She leaves the reader to decide what to do with it all in the end.
Balance is crucial in a slow-paced, 500+ page novel, and fortunately, each of the perspectives is as engaging as the next. Sunja remains the primary character throughout, but I found her parents, her lover, her husband and his family, her children and their families all as interesting to follow. Lee knows exactly how to keep the reader’s attention from start to finish, doling out details that make each character unique and compelling. Pachinko requires some patience, but it never bores.
The story as a whole focuses mainly on the challenges and prejudices that Koreans have faced in Japan over the last century. Sunja’s children and grandchildren were born in Japan, and yet they must carry alien registration cards, and can be deported at any time. Many jobs and careers remain closed to them. Horrendous comments are left in the children’s school yearbooks.
“He believed he could enjoy going to school if he were a regular person and not a Korean. He couldn’t say this to his father or to anyone else, because it was certain he’d never be a regular Japanese.”
Heart-rending moments pepper the book. Major blows are placed in the middles of chapters where they feel like just another hurt to overcome; Lee does not capitalize on shock value, which makes the various deaths and disappointments that much heavier- a weight that these characters will never be rid of. There are victories for the family as well, but the ceaseless hard work rewarded by suffering is present in abundance. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” Sunja’s mother Yunjin says, and the others echo in agreement. There is very little for me to relate to personally in this book, and yet I cared about every one of these characters and their hardships. I felt that a crucial piece of world history had been missing in my education that I was glad to have found in Pachinko.
“This city is made of wood and paper. It’ll take no more than a match for it to incinerate. Imagine what will happen with an American bomb.”
The game Pachinko is looked at with the same disdain as many Koreans are by the majority of the Japanese in this novel. Those who play it, those who work in the Pachinko parlors, and those who have amassed fortunes in the industry are frowned upon by society at large. Many believe the Pachinko bosses to be crooked mobsters, each and every one. But the game also becomes a source of hope and a symbol for Sunja and her family. They make the best of what they’ve got, even when they know the odds are stacked against them.
“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I finished this book halfway through the month, with plans for more great reading before the end of February, but I knew almost as soon as I started that this would be my favorite read of the month. It’s probably going to be one of my favorite books of the entire year, although I know it’s still early. Pachinko is absolutely beautiful and evocative, and worth the time it takes to read. I haven’t enjoyed historical fiction this much in so long, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Literary Elephant