Book review and synopsis for Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a story of a Korean family in Japan across generations.
With the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, Pachinko follows the lives of a family living in Korea that re-establishes itself in Japan. The narrative progresses through the years and the events of WWII, and we see the family's struggles and the sacrifices made in the name of survival. Even as the story near modern day, its characters are never quite free of their history and the events of the past.
Pachinko is a story of a family told across generations, whose lives are shaped by the events and attitudes of the world around them. It's a moving and intimate story that deals in universal themes and struggles.
Book I introduces an old fisherman and his wife who turn their small home in Yeongdo, Korea into a boarding house. Their only surviving son, Hoonie, is a cripple who marries a nice but impoverished girl, Yangjin. The young couple has a daughter, Sunja. Hoonie dies of tuberculosis when Sunja is 13. Afterwards, Yangjin keeps running the boarding house by herself for income. When Sunja is 16, she meets a fish salesman, Koh Hansu, who seduces her, and Sunja gets pregnant. Hansu is married with children and cannot marry her. He offers to take care of Sunja financially, but she wants nothing to do with him.
Meanwhile, a religious man comes to stay at the boarding house, Baek Isak, who has tuberculosis, and they nurse him back to health. When he is better, he asks Sunja to marry him after hearing about her unfortunate situation. Sunja and Isak move to Osaka, Japan, to live with Isak's brother and sister-in-law, Yoseb and Kyunghee. Isak becomes the assistant pastor at a church. One day, some debt collectors come demanding payment on a debt that Yoseb incurred when paying for the costs for Isak and Sunja to come to Osaka. Sunja sells a watch Hansu had given her to pay off the debt. Right after, her baby, Noa, is born.
In Book II, young Noa now how has a baby brother, Mozasu. However, Isak gets arrested for religious activities. Afterwards, Sunja starts selling kimchi to help make ends meet. Soon, Kim Changho, a restaurateur, offers to employ both Sunja and Kyunghee to make kimchi for his restaurants, for a generous salary. They accept. When Noa is 8, Isak is finally released from prison, weak and sick, but he dies soon after.
One day, Hansu shows up saying that Osaka will soon be bombed by the Americans and that Sunja needs to leave. He's been keeping tabs on her, and Kim works for him which is why they were offered the kimchi job. He brings the family to a farm where they will be safe, though Yoseb goes to Nagasaki for a new job. Hansu brings Yangjin to the farm as well. Yoseb is badly injured when Nagasaki is bombed.
After the war, the family moves back to Osaka and rebuilds their house larger with the money the farmer gave them. Kim also stays with them and continues to work for Hansu, who now is a gangster running a "protection" racket. As Noa grows up, he is studious and well behaved, while Mozasu doesn't like school and gets into trouble. Mozasu befriends a Japanese outcast, Haruki, whose mother is a seamstress. To keep him out of trouble, a neighbor who owns a pachinko parlor, Goro, hires Mozasu to work for him. Meanwhile, Noa gets into the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.
Against Yoseb's advice (he knows Hansu is a bad man), Sunja asks Hansu for the money for Noa's tuition, which Hansu readily pays in addition to room, board and an allowance. Noa meets a pretty girl at school, Akiko, and they date for a long time. (Meanwhile, Mozasu marries Yumi, a girl who works for Haruki's mother.) When Noa breaks up with Akiko, she angrily tells Noa it's obvious Hansu is his real father and that Hansu is clearly a Yakuza gangster which is how he affords all these things. Noa confronts Sunja, and is furious when she confirms it even though he wasn't a gangster when they met. Noa quits school and leaves to start a new life, not wanting to be found.
In Book III, Noa now works as an accountant at a pachinko parlor in Nagano, and everyone he knows thinks he's Japanese. He gets married and has kids. When Hansu finally tracks him down, Sunja goes to see him and Noa kills himself. Meanwhile, Haruki marries one of his mother's assistants, Ayume, although he is gay. One day, she sees him engaged in a sex act with a young man, but never says anything.
Mozasu owns his own pachinko parlor now and has a son, Solomon, but Yumi soon dies in a car accident. Hansu shows up at the funeral, but he still hasn't located Noa yet. Solomon is a cheerful boy who attends an expensive international school. Mozasu dates a woman who was previously divorced and has three kids. Her daughter, Hana, gets pregnant and stays with her mother for a while. Hana is 17, but she seduces 14-year-old Solomon and convinces him to give her money. She then runs away, leaving Solomon heartbroken. (She ends up becoming a sex worker and dying of AIDs.)
Solomon goes off to Columbia University and works at a bank in Japan afterwards. His Korean American girlfriend comes with him, but is unhappy there. When there's a complication at work, Solomon is fired. His girlfriend wants to move back, but Solomon realizes he is Japanese even if Japan sees Koreans as foreigners. Solomon decides to stay and join his father in the pachinko business, even if it is un-prestigious compared to banking. The book ends with Sunja visiting Isak's grave and learning that Noa visited the grave all the time, even while he was living in Nagano. Sunja buries a photo of Noa in the dirt at the gravesite.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has been on my reading list and sitting on my bookself, looking lovely and forlorn, for some time.
With the wildfires, lightning storms and heat wave in Northern California, I decided to head to the coast for a spell and found some time to read it while chilling out in Monterey and listened to some of it via audiobook in the car while doing a little sightseeing. After reading it, I wish I had done so earlier, since it’s as good as the reviews say.
Pachinko is an understated but powerful story that is grounded in its historical context. The book starts with the Japanese invasion of Korea, and it highlights the difficulty of the lives of peasants and the discrimination Koreans faced at the hands of the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. As it proceeds, the effects and after-effects of WWII are reflected in the everyday lives of this Korean family living in Japan.
In Pachinko, the characters grapple with difficult decisions where there are often no good options, where the best option puts their integrity at risk or where any of the available options put their values to the test. Theirs is a family struggling to survive, comprised of individuals who are struggling to survive and whose lives are the result of many small decisions that are made according to the exigencies of the situation. And generations later, their children are still the product of those decisions that were made many years ago.
The meaning behind the title of the book is an apt, though perhaps not very subtle, metaphor. Min Jin Lee compares life to a game of pachinko, an gambling game where the player drops a ball down rows of pins to see where it ends up, which determines the payout. There’s a little choice in how you maneuver and semblance of personal agency involved, but mostly it’s a lot of luck and you never really know how the pins have been adjusted or tweaked to know how things will play out. At one point, Mozasu, one of the characters, tells his friend that “life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”
I don’t know that I entirely agree with that was a view on life, but it’s hard to argue that there’s not at least a pachinko-esque aspect to many parts of life.
One of the strongest aspects of Pachinko is how deeply rooted it is to the historical context of that time. Many will recognize how the treatment of Koreans by the Japanese is reminiscent of the treatment of racial minorities by Western countries. Even the Koreans born in Japan are treated like criminals and risk deportation. The book also highlights the precarious position of women during those years. It also examines the high price that must be paid and the sacrifices that are made by parents to improve the lives of their children.
Throughout Pachinko, there are so many parallels to Western history that can be seen, it makes me wonder why there isn’t a greater push to teach this type of history in schools.
Even as the racial slurs against Koreans decrease, the policies in place have kept the Koreans poor and that poverty is thrown around as an insult against them, not unlike the treatment of black people in America. The Koreans that do manage to become wealthy do so through less respected venues like running pachinko parlors, and then are marginalized socially because of their association with those trades. It’s not unlike the treatment of Jewish people who entered finance due to their exclusion from other profitable trades, which morphed over time to a stereotype about their people.
As much as I really enjoyed the book, I think there’s a few storylines that seemed incomplete or not really explored. Haruki being gay, for example, I think wasn’t given proper attention other than having his wife spot him performing a sex act, which seems like not a very complete or fair reflection of Haruki’s sexuality what it’s consequences.
I also wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending of the book. It sort of just ends, but I suppose it’s the journey that counts in this case. I wasn’t looking for everything to be tied up neatly with a bow, but the ending felt like Lee sort of just decided she was done writing and stopped instead of concluding anything.
I also think that there was a weird sexuality to it in terms of the things that Lee chose to sexualize, which was almost elusively young women and the gay man in the book. I think those choices are questionable. I didn’t really understand what purpose it was supposed to serve or why we needed to know the shape and size of every woman’s breasts in this book. It bothers me because Asian women are already over-sexualized in media so adding to it, in a not particularly constructive way, seems counterproductive.
Pachinko is a powerful book that interwines the story about the fate of a family against the backdrop of history in a way that is informative and engrossing. The Japanese invasion of Korea and the treatment of Koreans in Japan is also an often neglected history outside of Asia and is well-worth exploring and discussing, due to the important lessons it holds.
Beyond that, it’s just a good book that’s solidly written and that tells a compelling narrative. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and I would recommend it any book clubs for sure, even if it’s not a new release. I’m really hopeful that the upcoming Apple TV+ adaptation will encourage more people to read this book, because it’s one that deserves to be read.
Highly Recommended Published February 7, 2017
Page Count 512 pages
From the Publisher
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 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.