An epic saga: ‘Pachinko’ book review

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a rare find. It’s an epic family saga, enlightening historical novel, tragic love story, exploration of identity and so much more. Not to mention, how beautiful is the cover?

Pachinko traces the life, joys, struggles and misfortunes of an immigrant Korean family in Japan. It begins in a rural Korean fishing village in 1911, then takes us on a journey across the sea to Osaka in Japan, where much of the story is set. The family must contest with racism, religious persecution and war, and try establishing their place in a country that is hostile to foreigners, while watching from afar the tragic changes and war occurring in Korea.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had me stifling gasps and blinking back tears so much. Pachinko is an incredibly emotive and heart-aching read about love, loss, identity and family. One of the reasons it resonates so much is because this fictional family’s experiences are clearly based on many conversations with Koreans who made their home in Japan and faced many of these challenges. To western readers, the overarching themes of racism, where third-generation immigrants are required to be fingerprinted to be able to stay in the country they were born in, unfortunately has echoes of some political rhetoric today.

Pachinko focuses on four generations of one family, who each face very different challenges. We start in the rural Korean fishing village of Yeongdo in 1911, where Hoonie, a kind-hearted man with a cleft lip, unexpectedly finds a wife in the hard-working Yangjin. The two have one surviving daughter, Sunja, who works diligently for them at their inn. That is, until she falls for a Yakuza man named Koh Hansu twice her age and becomes pregnant. A travelling Christian minister named Baek Isak offers to marry Sunja to save her and her family from ruin and give her a new life in Osaka, Japan.

In Osaka, Sunja, Isak and his brother and wife share a small home in the slums. Over the years, the challenges of raising children and scraping together a living working in factories and selling kimchee on the streets become even more difficult with the outbreak of war.

The challenges faced by Sunja’s children, and later their own children, change with the times until we find ourselves in the 1980’s, at the height of the global banking boom. Whether it is having enough food to eat, battling internally with your identity as a Korean or Japanese person, or trying to pursue a career, things always seem much harder when you are an immigrant. There are always winners and losers and, unfortunately, those who try to do the right thing do not necessarily win.

This brings us on nicely to the book’s title – Pachinko. Those little pinball machine parlours you see all over Japan have their roots in enterprising Koreans after the Second World War, and Sunja’s family are very much involved in their growth. Pachinko itself is a good metaphor for this Korean family’s place in Japan – in the book, it is portrayed as a unseemly business that only a Korean person would involve themselves with, unlike the self-respecting Japanese. This of course ignores the fact that Sunja’s sons are Japanese citizens by birth.

Then, of course, there is the obvious metaphor about the game of life. You can try to game the system and move the levers, but there is only so much you can control. Or maybe everything is out of our control?

Pachinko is a beautiful read that will have you feeling around for the tissues. It is enlightening, moving and important. I cannot recommend it enough.


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