One of the reasons that I read is that there is so much about this world and the people in it that I don’t know, and books, even novels, offer a window on the world, to crib my local PBS station’s motto. In fact, I particularly love a thoroughly researched and well-crafted historical fiction novel because it allows me to learn about a time I may or may not have much knowledge of within the context of a personal experience I most likely have not experienced. It highlights why storytelling has been such a huge part of human culture since ancient times; we tend to learn and apply more when we feel a personal connection to the story or lesson or event. So to that end, I continued my effort to be a more diverse reader and read more diverse literature and learn more about our world and my fellow humans this year with Min Jin Lee’s gorgeous Pachinko.
Pachinko tells the story of teenaged Sunja, who falls in love with a mysterious, wealthy gentleman in her small Korean village in the early 1900’s. When she finds out not only is she pregnant but her lover is married, she risks societal dishonor and refuses to be his kept mistress. She ultimately accepts an offer of marriage from one of her mother’s borders, a kind, gentle, sickly minister on his way to Japan to minister to the Christian Koreans making their way to a new land of opportunity. Her decision sets off a four-generational saga of a family experiencing love, joys, and loss and struggling to find their way in a new country where they don’t fit and exiled from a country most of them don’t know or remember. The choices Sunja, her sons, and her grandchildren make takes the story careening from the Korean ghetto and street markets in Osaka to the most elite Japanese universities and the mafia-fronted pachinko parlors (the parlor game of pachinko representing the randomness and lack of randomness of life) and explores the role of the family, culture, and society in forming individual identity.
First, let me say this book is near 500 pages but you should absolutely not be daunted. It is absolutely gorgeous, as I said before, but not sprawling. Instead, the narrative is very contained and controlled, much like Lee’s characters strive to be. As a result, the book is quiet yet intensely emotional. These moments of emotion, whether joy or sadness, fear or courage, were unveiled so purposefully, intentionally, and beautifully, like a rose unfolding, that as a reader, I felt the emotions as intently as the characters–or at least as close as I could without actually being them. There was a particular moment when a fissure of tension finally cracked and pushed the family apart, that I was left breathless with the very real pain of it. It has been a long time since I have read an author who writes the everyday, human emotions we experience with such depth, grace, and truth.
Structurally, this is the second multi-perspective book I’ve read recently, and this one fared much more successfully. The characters weave in and out of the narrative and the timeline much more naturally, and Lee uses the character’s perspective to help signal major time period shifts. Her mastery at this really emphasized the flowing nature of time and how much life can pass before we realize it. A few of the characters, however, only had 1 section in a near 500 page book, so unfortunately those sections felt more forced and out of place in the larger narrative. They weren’t necessarily unnecessary, but the information (or major plot points, as was sometimes the case) could have probably been conveyed differently by an existing character and to greater effect.
Finally, as mentioned above, I learned a lot about a piece of world history that I frankly knew nothing about. I knew a little about the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korean from Simon Winchester’s Pacific, but I knew nothing of Korea before that point: the large immigration of Koreans to the more economically stable Japan in the hopes of finding opportunity and growth for their families, the discrimination faced by both immigrant and Japanese-born Koreans once in Japan, and the inability of many Koreans to go back home due to the challenges, violence, and economic instability of both North and South Korea post-WWII. Lee masterfully educates her reader on this time period by using her main family to explore the cultural history of displaced Koreans and the impact of socio-political policies in Japan, all within the dichotomies experienced by her main family: the tugs of war between past and future; the older and younger generations; Korean-ness and Japanese-ness; Asia and “the West”; rich and poor (and new and old wealth and even acceptable and unacceptable wealth); real family and “real” family; obligations to one’s self and to one’s family and culture. I could go on, and it’s a lot, but Lee does it without rancor or blame or anger toward any of her characters or the cultures and country. Instead she presents this history and these tensions with an openness that allows the reader to connect with many facets of this history and the characters’ representative experiences, ultimately coming to one’s own conclusion about the story presented.
Honestly, it was an honor to read Pachinko, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel like the NPR review describes it nicely. “In fiction we seek a paradox, the familiar in the foreign, new realities that only this one particular author can give us. Pachinko is the kind of book that can open your eyes and fill them with tears at the same time.”