It’s been a while since I’ve truly been obsessed with a book. Once I started reading Pachinko, I couldn’t stop- I even got up half an hour early every day so that I could fit in some reading time before my day began! It’s just that good, and most readers seem to agree: beyond it’s 4.3 rating on Goodreads, it was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times among being a National Book Award finalist.
In a nutshell, Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan through the twentieth century as they face various dilemmas ranging from complicated romance to life-or-death situations. Written in plain but elegant prose, Pachinko both entertains and educates the reader, heavily discussing the Japanese-Korean conflict with an emphasis on the Korean diaspora and identity crisis. Personally, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the Korean culture as well as the underground world of pachinko parlors.
“Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge- it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.”
-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
From the back cover:
History is seldom kind. In Min Jin Lee’s bestselling, magisterial epic, four generations of a poor, proud immigrant family fight to control their destinies, exiled from a homeland they never knew.
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant- and that her lover is married- she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home and to reject her son’s powerful father sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.
Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters- strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis- survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Though Pachinko follows four generations, much of the plot relies heavily on Sunja’s initial plight, as she gets pregnant out of wedlock to a wealthy man with a wife and children in Japan. Sunja ends up marrying a sickly minister in order to give her unborn son a proper name, and they begin a family of their own as she falls in love with him. Sunja has two sons, one from each man, and from there the novel focuses on the boys and their relationships with their respective fathers. In that regard, Pachinko focuses on fatherhood, the issue of nature versus nurture, and what it means to be a father.
Initially Pachinko took the time to explain everything in detail, but as the story moved along, the pacing steadily increased, and as time progressed faster, more and more characters were introduced. Structurally and pacing-wise, Pachinko struggled, but I fell in love with the story and the characters. Much like The Heart’s Invisible Furies, another well-loved, character-driven tome, Pachinko was a very emotional read. I felt sucked into the story, so much so that I was undeniably sad when it ended. Pachinko is a gem, so deserving of its recognition, and by far one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Find this book on Goodreads.