It’s hard to write down what you feel about some novels. While most readers like to refer to books as ‘friends’, some can feel like a new crush, somebody you are fascinated with, somebody you want to learn all about and don’t want to part with, until you’ve had too much and lose all interest. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee felt a little like that. I could not stop turning the pages for the first 75 per cent, I read every word, excited to know how things would turn, and then came a point where I lost interest, when some paragraphs were skipped, when I didn’t mind putting the book down and sleeping away in peace.
I didn’t want to start by giving a negative impression of the book, 75% is a LOT, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first 300 pages of this historical fiction that starts off in Korea in 1910 and then moves on to Japan in the 1930s. Pachinko follows the story of a modest Korean family that lives in a fishing village by the sea. 16-year-old Sunja helps her mother run a boarding house and falls in love with a man she hopes to marry. Her dreams are shattered when she finds out he is married, a little detail he forgets to reveal until she is pregnant with his child. Sunja is given a shot at redemption when a Christian minister offers to marry her and give her a new life in Japan.
Author Min Jin Lee captures the difficult lives of Korean immigrants in a nation where they are treated like scum – forced to take jobs the Japanese don’t want & finding rentals only in ghettos that resemble pigsties. The book follows four generations of Sunja’s family. It starts of with the life of her simple parents in Korea, then moves to a tumultuous World War II era, where things get harder for the family, with food always short and death around the corner. Then it moves to a post-war era, focusing on the growth of her two sons, each very different from the other. While the older one Noa is a scholar, the younger one hates studying and is constantly engaged in school-fights.
The language is simple, engaging and peppered with a lot of Korean and Japanese phrases, which doesn’t disrupt the flow of story-telling at all. The author employs her characters into describing political situations and scenarios, instead of writing mundane-long third person descriptions. It makes the long book easier to read. The title ‘Pachinko’ is a Japanese word for a pinball like game played in the country, it’s like gambling in an arcade. In the book, the readers are informed that there are establishments that only have Pachinko devices for people to gamble away their money and the trade is looked down upon. But it’s a Pachinko business that changes the eventual destiny of Sunja’s impoverished family.
For those not too familiar with Japan-Korea’s history, Pachinko offers an intriguing study of racial discrimination, cultural disparities and the constant identity struggle one faces in a nation that considers them ‘foreign’. Min Jin Lee tries hard to strike a balance and not crucify one race as more evil than the other, and those efforts are constantly seen in charged dialogues between the characters in the book. There is a moving chapter where Sunja’s son Noa desperately wishes that people could just see him as a human being and not constantly put him under a racial category.
Since the novel unfolds over four generations, there are multiple romantic relationships that are woven into the narrative and themes like loyalty, infidelity, homosexuality, prostitution are explored. The author briefly touches upon the subject of ‘comfort women’, but never really dwells upon it, which was a bit of a shame. For the uninitiated, ‘comfort women’ were women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the War and suffered severe brutalities. In fact, that’s a little problem that I had with ‘Pachinko’, despite being almost 500 pages long, the author doesn’t dwell upon some themes too deeply. A theme is introduced, you hope for more story, but either nothing happens or the sub-plot ends too abruptly.
Some of the characters that you grow to like do not get enough space in the book. Some of them are just forgotten. Sunja herself becomes a fading persona, from being the protagonist in the first half of the novel, she retreats in the background as she gets older; which was quite fine, but the other protagonists who are pushed to the forefront of the story are not memorable enough. Sunja’s sister-in-law is perhaps one of the strongest characters, not only because she endures a lot of strife, but she is supportive and loyal to a fault.
What works best for ‘Pachinko’ is its historical nostalgia, it stirs up images of an era that a lot of readers have only heard of. It offers a cultural hotpot, with ingredients that are similar to most countries – national pride, xenophobia, misogyny, extremism and class warfare. The highlight of the novel is however the tightly knit family at the center of the story, how despite their differences, Sunja and her clan stick together and fight the worst of circumstances.
One just wishes that Jin Min Lee should have either fleshed the story out in more books or avoided dragging it towards the end, because the author is unable to do justice to some of the characters that are introduced later. Overall, it makes for a great read and it’s honestly a little confusing to rate it. I will go with a 4 on 5.
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