Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published February 7, 2017
Multigenerational sagas are perhaps my favourite subgenre of historical fiction. In my teens or early twenties I was shaped by Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, I loved Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles (although I have my doubts over how well they would hold up for me on a re-read), and I devoured Morgan Llewellyn’s Irish Century series. So it’s not unexpected that I fell head over heels for Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.
Taking place from 1910 through the late 1980s, Lee’s novel follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself. The book is beautifully written and does not shy away from depicting the discrimination and hardship that Koreans living in Japan during this period, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations, faced.
Learning about a place and period in history that I knew very little about was part of the appeal of Pachinko, but what made the novel so engrossing was the characters. From the beginning I cared for Hoonie, a cleft-palated fisherman who is steadfast, kindly, and whose good opinion is valued by all, and for his daughter, steady, hardworking Sunja who never complains. Over the course of the novel, Lee presents us with a full cast of characters to adore, including sister-in-law Kyunghee, who provides a lightness to the novel and to Sunja’s life, earnest and kind Christian pastor Isak, and studious Noa who wants to be “normal” (to be Japanese) so badly that he hides his true identity.
Of course there are shades of grey and characters who err and make choices that are not necessarily in their best interests, but the overall impression I had was of a family who aren’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice in order to achieve a better life for their children. When they succeed, we feel their happiness, when things don’t go as well and they endure hardship, we bare their pain. Even the minor characters are so well-written that I gasped in sadness at the death of one such character. With such a likable cast, the deaths of major characters are even more moving because since we experience both the loss of the person and the impact that these deaths have on the surviving family members.
I didn’t get the significance of the title until later in the novel, when the pachinko parlors are introduced and I looked up exactly what the game entails. A widely popular slot machine game in Japan, pachinko offers an opportunity for the Baek family, shut out of many traditional occupations, to accumulate wealth. Sunja’s son Mosazu becomes a millionaire, owning several pachinko parlors, but even with the security of wealth, honesty in business, connections, and a good education, his family cannot escape feeling like outsiders in the country where they live. Mosazu confides to his closest Japanese friend:
“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.”
Ethnic Koreans are called Zainichi or foreign residents, and are required to reapply for alien registration cards every three years even if they were born in Japan, like Mosazu and his son Solomon.
“And this is something Solomon must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. Life is full of things he cannot control so he must adapt. My boy has to survive.”
The Baek family’s story is very much one of survival and of sacrifice. Yangjin sends her pregnant daughter Sunja away with love, knowing they may never seen one another again, in order to give her a shot at a better life. Similarly, Sunja seeks to provide for her family, first through hard work selling candy and kimchi in a marketplace all day, and later through swallowing her pride and asking her eldest son Noa’s yakuza (organized crime syndicate) father for help paying for his schooling, when Noa passes the entrance exam for a prestigious Japanese university.
Lee’s prose is elegant, richly capturing the myriad of different settings found throughout Pachinko. Although the novel is nearly 500 pages, the pace is kept up throughout and Pachinko never feels long or plodding. Also impressively, the author avoids falling into the trap of generational sagas where some family members or narrators are less engaging than others. While I do have favourite characters, I felt connected to them all. Even the veritable villain of the piece in a way, Hansu Koh, a gangster figure who embeds himself in Sunja’s life through deception when she is an impressionable teenager and impregnates her, is interesting enough to not be viewed as wholly evil.
Pachinko is a fabulous novel. For lovers of historical fiction, East Asian history, or family sagas, this is a must-read, but it’s a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Despite the length, I found it a quick read and one I didn’t want to end. This profoundly moving tale of sacrifice, survival, and family, deftly explores themes of home and cultural identity in an accessible and engaging way.