Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a compelling and poignant historical fiction novel that follows the stories of a Korean family spanning four generations, and the challenges they continuously endure — including Japanese and Korean relations, immigration, war, and Korean gang culture within Japan. The family has to also overcome challenges within their own family, including religion, love, sacrifice and cultural expectations.
The backdrop for the majority of the story is Imperial Japan and the discrimination and segregation of Korean immigrants. Though this novel reflects the relations between Koreans and Japanese persons from 1910 until 1989, some Koreans living in Japan still face discrimination. In Pachinko, Korean immigrants are refused homes to rent, high (and even mid) level jobs, and are harassed. Many (including the family in the novel) live in poverty and are prevented from becoming financially or academically successful.
Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee are leading figures within the novel, and are the ones who inspire perseverance and determination in the rest of the characters in their family. As a teenager, Sunja attracts the attention of Hansu, a notorious Korean gangster, who is much older than her. Ultimately, she falls pregnant (not knowing that he was already married) and refuses to become his mistress. She moves to Osaka to start a new life with Isak, who is unbothered by the fact that she is pregnant with another man. When Isak and his brother are unable to financially support their growing families, Sunja and Kyunghee are determined to take matters into their own hands, even if this goes against the cultural and gender expectations of a Korean woman. They sell kimchi and confectionary at the markets, even when surrounded by a world run by men. Both women, particularly Sunja, are survivalists and instil the trait of hard work in the rest of the family.
Though the women were the backbone of the story, I found myself drawn to Noa’s narrative, who is Sunja and Hansu’s son. He grew up a life driven by an overarching lie, and he struggles to come to terms with the truth once it comes to light. Despite the intelligence he was blessed with, he was never taught what it meant to suffer, which was his downfall.
The game of Pachinko is a prominent element of the novel. Pachinko is an addictive arcade game that is popular in Japan and is notorious for its association with gambling and game-fixing. The Pachinko industry becomes a major source of income for the family, with both Sunja’s sons and eventually her grandson all seeking to profit from the industry. Though the game is present in the narrative, it is also represented figuratively, with the story showing that life is a gamble and a game of chance.
The quality of writing by Min Jin Lee was absolutely brilliant. Once I had the book in my hands, it was difficult to put down. I found myself swept up in the beauty of Min Jin Lee’s prose. My only complaint is that I wish it was longer, as once it reached the second of the book, time felt like it was rushing and I was sad that Sunja was no longer a focus.
Pachinko is an utterly brilliant novel. Min Jin Lee was able to capture the harsh realities of Korean immigrants. Through the family in focus, she was also able to show the true nature of human existence.
Release date: August 3rd 2017 by Apollo (an Imprint of Head of Zeus)