Pachinko was one of those books that I’d started seeing all over bookstagram and I just kept thinking two things – that cover is gorgeous and I had to have it! Then I found out more about the story and I knew that this had to be moved to the top of my TBR list immediately. Luckily for me my amazing friend had seen my enthusiasm for Pachinko and bought me a copy as a present – thank you Dena!
Pachinko is a 4 generation family saga set in both Korea and Japan that starts in the early 1900’s, before a divided Korea, when Japan annexed Korea and it goes through times of historical importance, such as World War 2, and ends in the 1980’s. It is utterly heart-breaking but an essential read.
I’m just going to preface this by saying that it was very hard to write this review without giving much away, so forgive me if this review is vague.
Pachinko, for all its beauty, has some pretty difficult subject matters to read about – but that’s the point. The writing is beautifully crafted and the book has an amazing flow to it that plays out like a movie in your head. The contrast of the beautiful writing with the (at times) horror of the subject matter is jarring.
“There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know.”
The story has a lot of topics that it juggles, from the concept of hard work for those you love to disgraceful pregnancies and the stranger as salvation, as well as going from the Yakuza and black markets to racism and religious persecution and the discrimination of immigrants. It also touches on the successes and failures of businesses, the dangers of being a minority and the role each member of a family plays.
It takes on a lot but it never feels muddled or confused.
The main themes of the story show the depressing and hopelessness that life can force you to experience and it forces you to think differently and acknowledge the amazing extraordinary in the everyday ordinary.
Min Jin Lee expertly blends both personal and political stories with her characters and it makes for a really believable and in-depth reading experience. Speaking of the characters, you really root for them, they are so brilliantly written that their pain is your pain and their (rare) happiness is also yours. You’re with them every step of the way and you really care for them.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
The most complicated character by far was Hansu. He’s initially untrustworthy, and whilst he doesn’t outright lie he withholds the truth and it makes you wonder what his real intentions are throughout the story. He is responsible for a lot of misery and happiness alike for several of the characters throughout the generations. He’s cool, calm and collected and very elegant yet strangely and subtlety dangerous and threatening.
Noa’s inner conflict between his Japanese and Korean identities also made for an interesting and well developed character and his story and journey was captivating from start to finish.
Perhaps the most persistent characterisation was of the “unglamorous woman”. Several of the characters, including Sunja – the main character, fall into this characterisation and they embody the extraordinary ordinary as the undisputed backbone of their families and the driving force for their loved ones happiness. They are selfless to a fault and fiercely loving, yet despite all of this some of the characters still dish out and receive irrevocable damage. The inter-family relationships, especially between the parents and their children, are utterly heart shattering and yet still so believable.
“There was more to being something than just blood.”
This is a very long novel, it’s nearly 500 pages, and whilst it rarely feels like it drags there are a few parts that I think could have been cut without any real damage being done to the main plot. Sunja is the beating and breaking heart of Pachinko, yet for the last section of the book she isn’t really the centre focus – she doesn’t always have to be of course, but I feel that some of the sub-plots in the latter part of the book were a little unnecessary. But with that being said, this wasn’t too distracting for me, but I can understand that it might irk other readers.
During some of these sub-plots there were some pretty sordid sex scenes and I thought they were unnecessary for the most part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the furthest thing away from a prude that you can get and sex definitely has its place in some stories, but I didn’t feel that this was one of them – it just seemed out of place and almost forced, especially in the final sections of the book.
Another thing that might irritate or alienate some readers is the occasional use of Japanese and Korean words (Romanised, of course) that are sprinkled throughout the novel. Personally I didn’t mind, I’m quite invested in both Japanese and Koran culture and I knew most of these words already and any that I didn’t I could guess from the context of the scene. But I can appreciate that not every reader will have this experience and it could be quite frustrating for them.
“The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned.”
The title, Pachinko, might also be confusing or frustrating for some readers. The game of pachinko is quite heavily featured in the meat of the story and it seems a bit on-the-nose to name the story after this, even if it is where a lot of important decisions are made. However, pachinko is a game of chance that can also be easily rigged – this is the real reason I believe Min Jin Lee named her novel in the way she did as the characters in the story deal with both chance and manipulation throughout their lives.
Pachinko is an amazing piece of literature that will become a classic in no time. This was my first experience reading work by Min Jin Lee and I have already ordered her first novel so I can read that too! I will continue to read her work for as long as she writes.
Pachinko truly is a rare jewel in my library, and I’m sure it will become one in yours too.
[PLEASE NOTE]: I was not paid or sponsored to write this review – all the opinions are honest and my own.