Author: Min Jin Lee
Genre: Fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★★
Summary: Beginning in the early 1900s and spanning several decades, we follow one Korean family through multiple generations. Sunja, abandoned by her wealthy yakuza lover and unhappily pregnant with his child, is saved when a young Korean minister passing through on his way to Japan offers to marry her. He is a sickly man but gentle and understanding, and she decides to go with him to Osaka. Sunja’s decision is what sets off the saga of a family struggling to survive and prosper in a foreign land.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
– Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
What a journey this book is – a beautiful, genuine, heartbreaking, and deeply thought-provoking journey. This book crosses the borders of time, place, and history, but it never truly strays from its center, which is the lives of the Baek family.
I have to admit that I haven’t read all that many family sagas, but I can without a doubt say it’ll be hard to top “Pachinko” as this is truly an extraordinary reading experience. This is a book that deals with all situations in a quiet and dignified way, and yet it has the ability to hook you already from page one with its beautiful prose, vivid imagery, and complex characters. I found it nearly impossible to put down and at the same time I tried to read slowly as I didn’t want it to end. This is definitely a book I wanted to reread as soon as I finished it and I don’t often feel that way, even with books I rate 5 stars.
There is so much information to gain from the historical aspect of this novel, but it is informative without taking anything away from the emotional and personal aspect of the storytelling. The starting point of this saga is set immediately after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and this continues to serve as an important backdrop of the story. The situation of Korean immigrants in Japan back then is something that I personally have very limited knowledge about, and I’m grateful for all the research that has gone into this novel for it to become such a detailed, thorough, and layered representation of this part of history. I have a lot of respect for the careful historical reconstruction that “Pachinko” is and I think it’s worth reading only for that.
As the story progresses it explores how the Koreans were discriminated against in Japan, and this “outsider” status is something that would linger for several decades. Not only does it delve into the immigrants’ situation itself – the racism, the poverty, and basically how they were treated as sub-citizens – but the novel also portrays the struggle of searching for a place to belong, to be unconditionally accepted. It is a book about finding and accepting your cultural identity, and we get to read about this both on a social level and on a personal level. Korea being divided into North and South after World War II just further enhances this struggle. With an ostracizing Japan on one side and a divided Korea on the other, you get a really good sense of how the characters experience discrimination and rootlessness. Beyond the family itself there is really no place to truly call home. The storyline of Noa Baek, the illegitimate son of Sunja and her yakuza lover from her teenage years, Hansu, is one narrative regarding this issue that really resonated with me. Noa has a strong desire to assimilate but at the same time he fears rejection. He experiences a deep-set fear of being “revealed” as an ethnic-Korean, and later on he also struggles to come to terms with his paternal roots. This is something that follows him throughout life. I could genuinely sympathize with his inability to reconcile his backgrounds.
This novel is also filled with strong female characters who are all complex and unique. In many ways it is their resilience that helps the families stay afloat enough to get by, whether this is by running a boarding house or working long hours making and selling kimchi. They suffer through so many changes, losses, and sacrifices, but they remain inspirational in a humble way. I really love how beautifully written they are. Even the minor female characters add so much to the story and play significant roles, mostly by highlighting and accentuating the cultural differences that permeate this book. There is a rather extensive character gallery overall, but it’s not difficult keeping track of everyone because in my opinion not a single one of them can be considered superfluous. The characterization is strong and you can easily sympathize with them.
There is a high chance you will become deeply invested in “Pachinko”. It is definitely not fast-paced or filled with action and drama, but it’s still a page-turner. The writing is rich and gorgeous no matter the setting, and even though it spans so many years it doesn’t fall into the trap of irregular or rushed pacing. It never abandons or “forgets” a character, the changes between the different narratives are many and constant but never confusing, and all historical information is seamlessly weaved into the story. This is an impressive book and I highly recommend it to everyone, regardless of reading preferences.