Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publishing Date: 2017
Country: Korea, Japan
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”
Pachinko is a deeply engrossing tale of four generations of a Korean family in Japan. As someone who knows very little about Korean history and the Japanese colonization of this small island country, this book was absolutely fascinating. Pachinko is one of those few books which teaches us a chapter of modern history which many of us are not aware of.
Pachinko begins in Korea in 1911. In a small fishing village a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife. Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.
Pachinko is saddening and interesting at the same time. Min Jin Lee has poignantly described the family’s hardships and the discrimination faced during war. Many Koreans were forced to leave their motherland and move to Japan. The Japanese government imposed harsh and unfair rules on the Koreans and forced them to live in squalor and poverty. After years of hardships, pushing through discrimination, when the Koreans finally earned enough money, they could never go back. Korea was divided and North Korea was not safe anymore. The Japanese government refuse to give citizenship to third and fourth generation of Koreans. Pachinko is a deeply affecting read about a forgotten chapter of East Asian history.
Pachinko is historical fiction but steeped in the true stories of history. The difficulties faced by Koreans are true but the characters are fictitious- from the resilient Sunja, who once foolishly believed in love, to Solomon, her grandson, who is trying to escape the discrimination associated with Koreans after so many years. Rendered with impeccable prose, Pachinko is tender but searing at the same time.
Pachinko taught me a lot about the Japanese and Korean dynamics, something which I was totally ignorant about. The historical concept of this novel is something which is forgotten outside East Asia. The term ‘Pachinko’ intrigued me when I started reading this novel. It is a kind of Japanese pinball game. I think it was the symbol of Korean life in Japan. There was always this hope that they will have good-luck but as with the Pachinko machines in the novel, somebody was always making sure they never won.
I would recommend this novel to readers who love historical fiction and epic family sagas. Readers who love reading about different cultures and history would also find Pachinko interesting.