I have struggled for a few weeks to find a good book to get into. I kept starting books and then abandoning them. I don’t think it was the books at fault, just my own strange reading mood. Then I picked up Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and suddenly I was back into reading. I couldn’t put this book down until I had made it to the end.
Pachinko is a historical fiction saga that takes place over a few generations of a Korean family living in Japan. Starting in South Korea in 1911 in a fishing village in Yeongdo, it moves through to Osaka in Japan and the Second World War and finishes up in Tokyo in 1989. Told from various point-of-views, Pachinko has a rich narrative tapestry that follows the characters’ struggle through hardships like poverty, illness, racism, war and being misplaced Koreans living as immigrants in Japan. Even when later generations of the family are born in Japan, they are still considered foreigners.
It’s a heavy book to read at times because of all the suffering, particularly during the war years when everyone is so poor and there is little food. The family go through so much–especially the women who work tirelessly to take care of their husbands and children on so little. They sacrifice everything for their children so they can improve their lot in life. A repeated phrase throughout the novel is that a woman’s lot is to suffer. It’s what is expected of them–though it’s good to see some of the female characters later rejecting this notion. The women are resilient, work hard and plan for the future constantly. They cope better with hardship than their husbands and sons and this is shown as the novel progresses.
Pachinko spans generations so there are times when it lingers in a particular period before jumping forward many years. Sometimes something terrible happens and then the story moves on without lingering. This made the story feel melodramatic but then I began to look at such moments as snapshots in a story spanning generations. Often these small events had repercussions that lasted years to a lifetime for the remaining characters.
I lived in South Korea as an English language teacher for three years so I knew a bit about Korean history during the time of Japanese occupation and then the history surrounding the Korean War. But I didn’t know anything about the Koreans who moved to Japan and what they experienced.
I don’t think I can do justice to trying to explain all the complex issues about nationhood, identity and growing up Korean in another country that this book explores. It’s hard to write a worthy review of such a richly drawn book. There are so many storylines and themes to explore. At the back of the book in the author acknowledgements, Min Jin Lee describes how she has been working towards this book for thirty years. It certainly shows.
Verdict: Read Pachinko if you’re looking for a powerful and moving read.