"A new tour de force from the bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, for readers of The Kite Runner and Cutting for Stone. PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity"--
“There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could feel Noa's small hand when he was a boy, and she would close her eyes and think of his sweet grassy smell and remember that he had always tried his best. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.”
“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the f*ck?”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has gotten mixed reactions on LT, but I fall into the camp of those who greatly enjoyed it. It's a multi-generational story of a Korean family, beginning in the 1920s. In an afterword, the author explains that it was 30 years in the making, and that she scrapped it completely and started over in 2008 after interviewing many Koreans living in Japan and finding her first draft was off target.
I didn't know that Korea was occupied by Japan during WWII (my bad), or that Koreans historically have been looked down upon by many Japanese. (Amazing how prejudice can take so many different forms). This story begins with good-hearted but cleft-palated Hoonie, who normally would never get married because of his deformity, but does because of the dire economic times. His daughter Sunja grows up carefully watched over in their boarding house near the port city of Busan. When at age 15 she becomes coveted by Hansu, a sophisticated businessman, her life changes, and then changes once again when a Christian priest enters her life and the family moves to Osaka, Japan.
There are lovely moments and terrible ones, and many hardships overcome, often through family effort. Sunja proves hard-working and resilient, and her family the same. All the characters are skillfully drawn, and the writing is smooth - drafts of the book apparently were run by what seems like a cast of thousands, including early enthusiast Junot Diaz. If you're looking for a reading experience set in a different part of the world, with an interesting clash of cultures and memorable characters, this one fits the bill. Yes, like many long books, it could have been shorter without harming the story, but I'm one reader who says, so what.
Thus begins a generational saga of the struggle of Korean immigrants to Japan. I admit to being ignorant of the longstanding prejudice and harsh treatment of Koreans there, which is in many ways comparable to what African Americans suffered here in the US. Children are bullied because for their ethnic features and traditions, families are forced to live in a ghetto where few can ever hope to own their home, job discrimination abounds, options are limited and cause stereotypes to persist, etc. Even as recently as the 1970s, Korean boys had to register with the government at the age of 14, after which it would be determined if they could stay in Japan or were going to be deported.
I was moved by the story of Sunja, her husband Isak, her sons Noa and Mozasu, her brother-in law and his wife, and the rest of their growing (and, sadly, diminishing) family. The women especially showed strength and ingenuity, always finding a way to survive, if not to get a tiny bit ahead. Secrets and lies inevitably lead to conflicts, as with any other family, and the ups and downs of these hardworking people made for fascinating reading. My interest began to drop off, however, with the youngest generation. The characters in the last third seemed less fully realized, and the section seemed to rush through to the ending--a rush that nevertheless, for this reader, seemed to drag.
If you are wondering about "pachinko," it's a kind of upright pinball game popular in Japan, often associated with gangsters because it is a form of gambling for prizes. Sunja's youngest son enters the business but does his best to stay honest. Every night, the owners rock and tilt the pachinko machines to throw them off a little from the day before--just enough to ensure that the players' chances of winning decrease. I'm sure the author intends it to be a metaphor for the way the Koreans in Japan held on to a little hope, although the odds were stacked against them.
Pachinko would have been a solid four-star read for me, if not higher, except that my interest really waned in the last third. Bringing the story into the 1980s and beyond apparently meant bringing in a lot of drugs, alcohol, and sex, which I found rather boring and off tone from the rest of the novel; I just didn't care much about the self-destructive younger characters, even though I know I was supposed to feel that the years of intergenerational oppression were what brought them to this point. Still, I learned a lot from this book, including some things that put the current hostility between Japan and North Korea into perspective.
It's long -- about 500 pages -- and rather rambly, dipping in and out of the lives of its characters as they experience grinding poverty, impressive success, love, shame, scandal, discrimination, identity issues, multiple tragedies, and the effects of the differing expectations their times and their culture place on men and women.
Shortly after I started this book, I described it to someone as "well-written"... and then, when I opened it back up and started reading again, I found myself questioning that. The prose, really, isn't especially beautiful. If anything, it has a hard-to-describe but perhaps slightly "off" quality that I associate with books in translation, although it was written in English. And the structure is perhaps a bit baggy, with a thread or two that don't really seem to go much of anywhere. And yet, it reads to me as if it's very well-written, if that makes any sense at all. There's a quality to both the writing and the characterization that just easily and effortlessly swept me along. By the end, possibly it was wearing a tiny bit thin, but in general, the novel really didn't feel nearly as long as it actually was. And I was entirely content to just live these people's lives along with them, wherever the author might decide to go with them.
It was also rather interesting to me because it involves places and cultures and bits of history I had only a superficial knowledge of going in, but also ended up saying things about the immigrant experience that felt very familiar to me as an American.
Pachinko’s portrayal of Korean immigrants in Japan was very interesting. Subject to extreme prejudice, their employment opportunities were severely limited. They were unable to become Japanese citizens, but political events in Korea made it impossible for them to return home. Some Koreans were able to pass as Japanese and improve their socioeconomic status, but most lived out their lives within the Korean community in Japan.
The last third of the book extends the family saga one generation beyond Noa and Masuzo, and here, it tries to do too much. New characters are insufficiently developed. Major life events are dealt with far too hastily, and the characters respond in predictable, shallow ways. Min Jin Lee throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make it clear we are now in the 1980s -- drugs, prostitutes, AIDS, pop music stars -- and it’s all just too much. Pachinko was great when it focused on Sunja, her children, and her husband’s family, and would have been more powerful had the story remained centered on those central characters.
I appreciate the author's research and her numerous observations that make this wonderful novel such a pleasure to read. Highly recommend.
The story spans from the early 1900s to the late 1980s. I didn't know anything about what happened when Japan annexed Korea. We learn about this through our characters as they work hard to earn a living and even when born in Japan (as Korean), they aren't welcome and or treated well. An excellent, well written book that I absolutely loved.
This story follows the life of Sunja as she gives birth to another son, Mozasu, fathered by Isak who is a loving father to both boys. She becomes a young widow when Isak is imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and dies of brutal injuries. Isak's brother, Yoseb, is deeply responsible for his family including his brother's sons and sister-in-law, but times are hard and Sunja and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, find opportunities for income by selling food. Sunja becomes aware these opportunities are made possible by Hansu, the father of Noa, her first son. Hansu, a wealthy Korean, has made his money by being involved in organized crime.
World War II devastates Japan and the family as Yoseb is severely injured at Kagasaki. Noa, a brilliant studen,t is treated poorly at school because he is Korean, but again, thanks to the anonymous help of Hansu, manages to enroll in a highly-respected university while Mozasu becomes street smart and begins work in a Pachinko parlor, a business scorned by the Japanese and Koreans alike, but one that is very lucrative.
"Pachinko" is a family story which evolves in the midst of the cultural and political climate of Koreans in Japan. Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations are still required to register, they are unable to attain good jobs or proper housing, discrimination is deep. The last chapters of the novel take place in the 1980's. Solomon, Sunja's grandson, has graduated from Columbia University in America; he is a bright investment banker, but still deep, unacknowledged prejudices toward Koreans exist when he returns to Japan.
The game of Pachinko is an apt background for this story of individuals who are shaped and limited by their backgrounds but still are responsible for the choices they make in life. This is a story of family devotion and love, disappointment and separation, pride and shame.
After what felt like a soap opera-ish start I quickly settled into this beautifully rendered storyline of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean diaspora Japan. The story spans from the early 1900s to the late 1980s. It is the strong characterization and meticulous research that kept me turning the pages. There is a softness and dignity in the characters that is offset by the hard edges of bigotry and scathing discrimination. I knew a little about the harsh realities of when Japan annexed Korea (and the subjections of the Korean people) but this storyline with its unflinching intimate look at a personal level was both wrenching and revelatory.
Fans of historical fiction and immigrant stories will be richly rewarded by this quietly sharp yet elegantly intelligent written book.
This was an interesting book to read. The author kept things moving and the history she recounted was largely unfamiliar. She was clearly writing for a western audience, and she took pains to explain historical events. My only complaint about the book is one that wouldn't be an issue for many readers; Lee keeps the secondary characters uncomplicated, and often the primary characters as well. They aren't complexly drawn. Admittedly, in a novel that has such a large cast of characters and which covers so much time, this is difficult to do.
The novel begins in 1910, in Korea, and continues almost until the end of the century. Korea is part of the Japanese Empire and the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the Koreans throughout that time coupled with war and peace and changing powers, is presented as it is experienced by a Korean family through four generations.
The first generation of the family begins with the birth of one child, Hoonie, a gentle, kind son who is unfortunately disabled with a club foot and a cleft palate. Fearing the continuation of that genetic deformity, they find his marriage prospects are very low. When a match is made with the last child of an impoverished family, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin, and she accepts him willingly. So begins the second generation of the family. Their union produces a daughter, Sunja. Sunja and her mother grew to love Hoonie dearly. When Sunja was 16, she was seduced by a mobster named Hansu. She believed that he loved her, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that he was married with children. This begins the third generation.
When Isak Baek, a pastor, comes to board at her mother’s boarding house and suffers a relapse of Tuberculosis, Sunja and her mother tenderly care for him, separating him from the other boarders, keeping them safe until he is well again. When he recovers and learns of Sunja’s plight, he offers to marry her to save her reputation and give the child a name. As opposed to the superstition that guides most of the poor and illiterate peasants, the bible verses guide him. Thus begins Sunya’s story.
Isak and Sunya move from Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee are happy to welcome them. They are a childless couple and are eager for the birth of their nephew. Noa is not told of his true parentage and he grows up believing Isak is his biological father. He is a good and obedient child with a personality that resembles Isak’s far more than his biological father, Hansu.
Sunja and Isak have a second child named Mozasu. Mozasu, is more like Hansu in personality, although Isak is his true parent. While Noa loves school, Mozasu leaves as soon as he obtains permission and begins to work as an apprentice for a man who owns Pachinko parlors, which are gambling establishments. It is one of the few employment opportunities open to Koreans in Japan. Although the reputation of some of the Koreans who run the establishments is questionable, his mentor is said to be reputable. Still, the sting of that line of work is always present.
When Noa passes his exams, he goes to Tokyo to study. He marries a Japanese American woman. His life takes a tragic turn when he discovers the secrets of his background. His pride is a large part of his personality and also that of many Koreans and Japanese. While pride often leads to loyalty to one’s family, on the one hand, it leads to foolish decisions and stubbornness on the other.
Eventually, Mozasu marries and has a child, Solomon. Solomon is the fourth generation of this family. Although eight decades have passed, it seems that history will keep repeating itself as Solomon chooses to go into business with his father The author illustrates how even though life changes, in many ways it stays the same through wars and upheavals, tragedies and good fortune, births and deaths.
The story spans several decades, and it is heartbreaking to see the inability of the characters to adapt and truly change and fit into the new ways of society, even when their financial status improves. They are often trapped by society or their old habits. Secrets that dominated the story, when revealed, were the cause of devastating consequences. The evils and hardships of the developing world infringed on their simple way of life and sometimes began to corrupt them as well. They were simple people with a simple way of life and the author’s simple prose made it seem as if their simple way of life was superior to the sophisticated life of those who considered themselves better. It alternated between feeling like a folk tale and feeling like a tragic memoir.
The audio version of the book placed the listener in the heart of their village in Korea and then in the cities of Japan. The narrator’s pace, tone and interpretation were perfect for the novel, the changing times and different characters. The unpretentious vocabulary and the straightforward execution of the story made it seem very authentic. As it spanned almost 100 years, it enlightened the reader about the history of the often troubled relationship between Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. As the decades passed and the wars came and went, the changing world was illustrated by the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the characters. While survival was a constant struggle for many Koreans, they seemed to persevere and accept their fate with stoicism. Both the Japanese and Korean culture discouraged a public display of emotion. Their strength seemed to lie in their ability to adjust to what befell them, either by ignoring the changes or adapting to them. However, their fear of public humiliation often pushed them into making rash decisions. Still, through it all, they were loyal to each other and it was obvious that as much as the Japanese did not want to do business with Koreans, whom they deemed ignorant and dirty, the Koreans did not want to do business with the Japanese who were unjust and unfair rulers and who could not be trusted since they never fully accepted the Koreans. They were always outsiders, even if they were natives to Japan and had never set eyes on Korea.
One of favorites for the year!
First a disclaimer: I adored Min Jin Lee’s first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, so I went into this novel with a bias toward loving every word. This book is a family saga of four generations of a Korean family living in Japan. The characters are beautifully drawn and complicated. You meet a missionary, a man who “passes” as Japanese, a gangster, and many other wonderful people along the way. A lovely novel of identity and belonging. Highly recommended.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
I would recommend this book.
Min Jin Lee
MY RATING ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
PUBLISHER Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Audio
PUBLISHED February 7, 2017
NARRATED Allison Hiroto
Absorbing and thought-provoking, PACHINKO will remain in your memory for years to come.
Pachinko is an addicting Japanese vertical arcade game, a cross between pinball and a slot machine. It’s a game of chance and the house odds are high. There are only a few winners, but lots of losers.
PACHINKO, the book, follows one Korean family though four generations between 1910 to 1989. The game of pachinko plays a vital role in the family’s future is a apt metaphor for the the family’s fate. The family’s beginnings were based on a random chance. As Korea falls under Japanese control, a young Korean man in Busan with a club foot and cleft palette named Hoonie, marries a young local girl, Yangjin. It is an arranged marriage. The couple has a daughter Sunja who grows up content in the small boarding house that her parents operate on a small coastal island. When an innocent Sunja become pregnant she is stunned to find out that the father of her baby is already married. He offers to support her and her family, but she refuses to see him again. Just as her pregnancy threatens to ruin her family she is rescued. A boarder, a sickly minister with tuberculosis, on his way to Osaka, Japan kindly offers to marry her.
This emotional multigenerational epic novel continues in Japan with Sunja’s sons Noa and Mozasu who walk divergent paths trying to find their way in a foreign land, a land where Koreans are not welcome.
A deeply compelling novel that weaves a family saga of resilience with the shocking history of the treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan. The cast of characters is large and well developed, but most noticeable is Sunja, and the other hard working women in the family. It is these women who keep the family alive during some of the most difficult times of history. Whether it was operating a boarding house, or selling kimchi in the market, or working on a farm, the women find a way to survive the innumerable hardships placed in their path.
The well-woven story is poignant and thoughtful. The writing is absorbing, and the book is a peaceful, eloquent read. While swift pacing and sudden shifts may have you perplexed at the most heartbreaking of times, this book beats the odds. MIN JIN LEE’s immense research for this award winning book is evident and admirable. I listened to the Audible version of the book and found the narration excellent, adding tremendously to the reading experience.
The game of Pachinko is used as a metaphor for how we live our lives, taking gambles which sometimes pay off, and sometimes don't. It can be colorful and exciting, and it's certainly something about which many of us obsess. In this story, people gamble all the time, some are fortunate, like Sunja, who is rescued from infamy by a young man whose life she helped save. And in fact, as hard as Sunja's life has been, there have always been people there for her, there have always been opportunities, often unlooked for, like the random bounce of a Pachinko ball as it spins through its maze of pins.
Sunja and her family are Koreans living in Japan before, during, and after WWII. They are perennial outsiders in what is a highly insulated society, yet manage to make their way through hard work and determination. Some of her family slip away, some cling to life and make it work for them, and its not always who we might expect in either case. Some make their mark, looking past their social position to the status that success can bring.
Pachinko is very much about the expectations people have of themselves and of each other, and yes, it's very much about family. But for once I wasn't put off by the formulaic treatment inherent in a family story. Even the family members I didn't like I liked, if that makes any sense. And in the end, the story was satisfying which is all I really ask of a novel.