I have never read a book that spanned four generations and almost a hundred years. That statement was true until I finished the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
As part of my 101 Things in 1001 Days challenge, I promised to review every book I read for the next two years. Pachinko marks the 7th review of this goal!
To read my last review check out the post Morning Miracle by Hal Elrod [Book Review]. Elrod’s morning routine recommendations will add more value to your morning and improve your life.
Now back to Pachinko, a book with a lot of content and an amazing story.
I discovered the novel through The Girly Book Club, an international club that has chapters in most large cities around the world. Min Jin Lee’s novel was the book of the month for April. Participating in a book club has always been on my bucket list, so I had planned on discussing this book with my local Ottawa chapter. Unfortunately, I never finished the book on time and didn’t show up for the meeting. Maybe next time?
I was still happy I picked up the book and finished it, despite missing the meeting. Continue reading to find out my thoughts on Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and why I would recommend it.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links, meaning, at no extra cost to you, I will earn a small commission for any purchases made through those links. For more information see the disclosure policy.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction, Cultural – Japan
Format: Kindle Edition
Profoundly moving and gracefully told, PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.
So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
Synopsis retrieved from Goodreads.com
My Thoughts on Pachinko
There is a reason Pachinko is a National Book Award finalist for 2017.
Covering a period between 1910 and 1989, the epic novel follows the lives of a Korean family for four generations. We learn of the hardships faced by the grandparents, parents, children and their grandchildren as they migrated from Korea to Japan for a better life.
Historically, in 1910, Korea was colonized by Japan and many Koreans either stayed within their home country or migrated to Japan in search of a better life. However, once there, they often faced racism and hardship due to their race. Korea remained a colony of the Japanese empire until the end of World War II when Japan surrendered. This led to a period of uncertainty in Korea.
After the surrender of the Japanese, the Americans and Soviets occupied the country, dividing it into zones. Despite their attempts at reunifying Korea, the country was split in two by 1948, with two separate governments. Seoul became the capital in the south and Pyongyang in the north.
What became known in the history books as the Korean War occurred from 1950-1953. During these three years, the Koreans fought, with the Americans supporting the south and Chinese supporting the North. The war ultimately resulted in a truce, yet the country remained split between North and South, which it continues to be today.
Racism in Pachinko
Within the historical context of the period, the fictional story transported me back in time. At times I felt happy for the characters but a lot of the time I was saddened and sympathetic for their plight.
Min Jin Lee’s story repeatedly describes the treatment Koreans endured at the hand of Japanese youth, citizens and government officials. An example of this is a passage depicting the interaction between Japanese and Korean youth. When one of the main characters, named Sunja, was a young girl she was harassed by some young Japanese boys who would shout racist and sexist comments at her:
“Hobos eat dogs and now they’re stealing the food of dogs! Do girls like you eat bones? You stupid bitch!”
Reading Pachinko within the context of 2018, reflecting on today’s issues, racism and discrimination is not something we’ve left behind in the past. It is a problem occurring globally. Novels like Pachinko place you in the shoes of these characters who endure these horrible acts and hopefully shed light on the harm these ideas can have in society.
Adversity in Pachinko
Hardship has many forms in this novel.
After Sunja moves to Japan, expecting things to be better, we learn that the Koreans who migrated for living in ghettos. Despite this, they tried to make the best of their situation and persevered.
We also witness the results of discrimination against Koreans in Japan. When Isak, a Christian minister, is jailed for not worshiping the Japanese emperor he is kept there with no communication. He is only released, two years later, when he is dying from the oppression. This passage really stuck with me because it was so heart wrenching when the family returns home to find him barely alive.
We also see the effects these hardships have on the mental health of youth growing up in that atmosphere. Noah, an overachiever trying to make a good name for Koreans, commits suicide when he finds out his father is a yakuza (Japanese mafia).
Hope in Pachinko
We follow the family and we grieve, get angry and sympathize with them, because Min Jin Lee has made their story relatable through their daily lives.
Despite everything they endured, there is a theme of hope throughout the novel as well. Each generation hopes for the best for the next generation. Everything they do is to make a better life for their children.
“There could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”
Pachinko was a Japanese pinball game used for gambling. Each day the pins were slightly altered so the stakes changed. With this in mind, the title of the novel is appropriate as the Korean’s gambled for their future each day.
There is so much more to this book than what I can cover in a book review blog post. There are overarching themes of nationhood (if you are Korean, but born in Japan, are you Japanese or Korean?), traditions (Korean women’s emphasis on learning to cook) and home.
I gave Pachinko 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.com, though I believe it deserves more than that. For the amount of information contained in the novel, it is amazing that it’s only 500 pages.
Most interestingly, it took Min Jin Lee about 30 years to finish this novel! It is three decades in the making! This dedication and attention to detail are what makes Pachinko a great read that I highly recommend.
Have you read Pachinko? I want to know your thoughts! Share them in the comments below and let me know if you loved it as much as I did.
Before you go,
I want to take a minute to recommend the Kindle E-Reader for your book collection. As someone who reads a lot, books can become expensive. They can also take up a lot of space and aren’t good for the tree population.
Kindle E-Readers are great because they are as slim as 25 pages, hold thousands of books and the books are usually less costly. Most libraries allow you to rent e-books now as well, reducing wait times for physical books.
I own an older version of the Kindle, one of the first editions that came out (it’s actually the Kindle in the photograph at the beginning of this post). It’s lasted me almost 10 years and saved me hundreds of dollars. When I was in college I would buy my textbooks on here and they were usually half-price.
The newest Kindle versions have so many more features than my own and I highly recommend the company. For example, the Kindle Paperwhite has a built-in light so you can read without a table lamp. All Kindle editions allow you to adjust the size of the font for what works best for you, have built-in dictionaries and the ability to highlight and save passages.
If you have family members with the same brand e-reader you can exchange books among each other as if they were physical books!
If this is something you have been considering for a while now, I would get a Kindle.