Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Publication: February 23rd 2017 by Apollo
Format: Hardback Pages: 489
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.
So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity. – Goodreads.
Wuthering Heights was my favourite novel for a very long time, I loved that novel since I was 16, but for some reason, my perception of it changed this year and my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I felt a bit sad about that, fellow readers can probably relate to the feeling of emptiness when you realise your all-time-favourite isn’t even your favourite anymore. I had this big empty space in my heart that I felt like I had to fill with another book but I couldn’t think of another book amazing enough to fill that space. And then I got lucky because a few months after realising my relationship with Wuthering Heights had withered, I found Pachinko. (Boy, I moved on quick.)
I knew Pachinko was going to be incredible after reading the first paragraph, and I’m SO glad I decided there and then to force myself to read this book as slowly as possible. It took me months to finish this book because I paced myself by reading between 15-20 pages in each sitting, no more. Honestly, I would have finished it in a day otherwise. If you’re going to pick this book up after reading my review, please don’t read it in a rush, slow yourself down and enjoy the journey. I feel like Min Jin Lee put her soul into this book, reading it in a hurry won’t do her work justice. She packed so much into almost 500 pages that it’s a difficult task trying to explain everything that goes on in Pachinko (without spoilers, of course).
Pachinko begins in Korea, sometime around the 1900s, and the story takes root in a character called Hoonie. It is during Hoonie’s late twenties that Japan annexes Korea (1910), the reader is informed about the resulting consequences of the annexation throughout Hoonie’s life. The narration is rich and full of cultural information (in a very non-info-dropping way); it’s effortless to pick up and understand things like cultural norms, phrases, stereotypes, and so on. Min Jin Lee continues to tell her story through four generations of the same family, all starting from Hoonie, spanning over the course of 77 years.
Hoonie’s daughter, Sunja, is the character that takes the reader from Korea to Japan. Pachinko is a historical fiction novel, but I never felt overloaded with information and I didn’t feel like I was being lectured or taught. The writing is so entirely enthralling; I was immersed in Sunja’s life, and then in the lives of the people around her. It’s impossible to not fall in love with the characters in this book. I was stunned by how many I found myself attached to, and how many I was rooting for and felt invested in. Yet it never felt like there were too many characters. The writing makes you feel like you’re there with the family, I felt involved in everything that happened to Sunja and her children. It was personal, Min Jin Lee made it all feel personal.
Events such as the World Wars and Hiroshima play an important role in the day-to-day life of the main characters. There’s a lot to learn from Pachinko, the characters’ journeys in this book are eye-opening. It is through their daily struggles that Min Jin Lee expertly tells us about the Japan-Korea relationship; the tensions and prejudice that result in the poverty and discrimination faced by Koreans in Japan and Korea. The novel explores organised crime, the pachinko business, and alternative avenues open to Koreans in Japan who are unable to go into careers such as teaching. As the novel progresses, American and British influence begins to seep into the story.
What I was most interested in was the question: “Who am I?” which encapsulates the common struggle faced by the characters in Pachinko. All of the main characters in Pachinko exhibit a sense of confusion and dislocation, it’s something Min Jin Lee touches upon frequently and it’s heartbreaking. Due to the awful treatment of Koreans in Japan, a lot of the children grow up trying desperately to fit in, which requires passing as Japanese. However, even if someone passes as Japanese, they will never be accepted in Japan not will they ever be Japanese. Unfortunately, the same predicament follows these characters when they return to Korea where, by large, Koreans don’t accept them as Korean either. As a result, they don’t know where they belong, they’re alienated no matter where they go.
The strength and perseverance of the women in Pachinko shines brightly. Sunja’s mother, Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee are inspiring because of their determination to survive and thrive despite all odds. I was in awe of Sunja and Kyunghee in particular, especially the way the two women braved the war, the way they were relentless and ambitious, and how they were truly the backbone of the family.
This review is already so long and I haven’t even said all I want to say about Pachinko. I’m glad I picked this book up, it was a beautiful reading experience and it reminded me why I love reading in the first place, when I finished reading I felt like I’d lost a close friend. It hurt to turn to the last page. Pachinko was an amazing read, I highly recommend it.