Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Grand Central Publishing
“Pachinko” is a multigenerational novel centered around Sunja and her descendants. The story begins in the early 1900s in Busan, Korea, where Sunja and her mother runs a small boarding house. During one of Sunja’s visits to the market, Sunjia meets Hansu, a mysterious business man, and begins clandestine relationship with him. Everything changes when Sunjia becomes pregnant and discovers that Hansu is already married. Fortunately, Isak, a kind minister, offers to marry Sunjia and to start a new life in Osaka, Japan. Sunjia and her children have to endure historical horrors such as the atomic bombings of Nagasaki as well as daily horrors of being second class citizens in Japan.
Though the novel is almost five hundred pages, I was completely engrossed in my reading experience. This is very surprising because I typically do not enjoy books that have detached third person narration. However, Lee writes in a clear and direct manner and the plot thickens with very page. I loved Lee’s exceptional characterization–she built extraordinarily lives for every single person. This excerpt (which appears in “Pachinko” and can be found on Lee’s website) is a perfect example:
Etsuko Nagatomi loved all three of her children, but she did not love them all the same. Being a mother had taught her that this kind of emotional injustice was perhaps inevitable.
By midmorning, Etsuko had finished everything she had to get done for Solomon’s party and was sitting in her office in the back of the airy, birch-paneled restaurant. She was forty-two years old, a native of Nagano who’d moved to Tokyo following her divorce six years before, and she had maintained a youthful prettiness that she felt was important to being a restaurant owner. She wore her jet-colored hair in a chignon style to set off her lively, egg-shaped face. From afar she could appear stem, but up close her face was animated, and her small, friendly eyes missed nothing. She applied her makeup expertly, having worn rouge and powder since middle school, and the red wool Saint Laurent suit that Solomon’s father, Moses, had bought her hung well on her reedy figure.
I cared for all of the characters and wanted to know more even when the story moved onto the subsequent generation. Even the book ended, I wanted it to go on for five hundred more pages.
“Pachinko” was a 2017 National Book Award Finalist for its powerful perspective on the immigrant experience. Though Sunjia was an immigrant to Japan, her story resonants and reflects the experiences of immigrants everywhere. Lee said in an NYT interview that because she had grown up in the U.S., she was accustomed to the perception that Koreans are “hardworking and upwardly mobile, a model American minority.” She was shocked that Koreans in Japan are viewed as indolent. I was reminded me of the negative stereotypes in America that blame minorities’ circumstances on laziness. Similarly, the distinction between the “Good Korean” and the “Bad Korean” reminded me of the same problematic distinction that exists in America for African Americans. Lee writes,
Mozasu knew he was becoming one of the bad Koreans. Police officers often arrest Koreans for stealing or home brewing. Every week, someone on his street got in trouble with the police. Noa would say that because some Koreans broke the law, everyone got blamed…The Japanese didnt want Koreans to live near them, because they werent clean, they lived with pigs, and the children had lice…Noa told Mozasu that his former teachers had told him that he was a good Korean, and Mozasu understood that with his own poor grades and bad manners, those same teachers would think Mozasu was a bad one.
I learned that many zainichi, ethnic Koreans, are at the bottom of Japan’s social structure. Even those who have lived in Japan for several generations still do not hold Japanese citizenship and must apply, every few years, to continue their residence. Furthermore, they are limited to certain housing areas and to certain jobs. While reading the novel, I was constantly shocked by this discrimination and moved by the grace and resilience of the character’s responses.
Pachinko, a popular pinball (and gambling) game in Japan, plays a prominent role in the characters’ lives. Lee writes,
Every morning, Mozasu and his men linked with the machines to fix the outcomes—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. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way—she had not daughter her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.
For me, this passage captures the beauty and pain of the second class citizen experience. It asks readers to consider: How can one retain hope in a stacked game? Can places where one is discriminated against still be considered home?
In summary, “Pachinko” is a brilliant mediation on love, strength, and forgiveness. It explores complex social problems while riveting the reader with familial drama. It has now become one of my favorite books and recommend this novel (and the accompanying audiobook) to absolutely everyone!
Thank you to the lovely people at Grand Central Publishing for sending me a copy of the book for review.