Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow, I intensely loved this book. When I finished, my first thought was that it reminded me of Yanagihara’s A Little Life in its scope of following a few individuals over the course of their lives – but that’s where the similarities end. Whereas A Little Life is glorified misery porn (and I say this as someone who loved that book too), Pachinko is quietly hopeful and uplifting. Whereas A Little Life left me bawling on my bed for a solid half hour after finishing, Pachinko made me feel introspective and ancient and wise, having experienced the gamut of human emotion within its pages.

I simply loved each of the characters in Sunja’s family, starting with Sunja herself. She could be any woman. She’s not unique in any way but for the sheer strength of her character, which supports her family through the generations, and despite the horrors and poverty she lives through during WWII and the years around it, she nonetheless retains her steadfastness and sense of devotion until the end. Noa’s story killed me – you grow up with him, and he’s such a promising, intelligent young man that naturally his idealism is what ruins him. I was so devastated by his arc that it was like my own brother had committed suicide. Mozasu and Solomon were joys to read about, however. I cried at their own misfortunes and cheered on their successes, and couldn’t have been happier to see that branch of the family thrive. And that’s something about Lee’s writing – her characters are so realistic, so dimensional and fleshed out that I genuinely cared about every one of them – even Hana, Noa’s STD-ridden, promiscuous, morally-questionable stepsister, which is no small feat. I may not have liked them all, but I never felt ambivalent about any of them. Lee’s writing is just that compelling.

I also learned so much about the Korean/Japanese tensions at the time. Despite being Chinese, I honestly didn’t even know (and had never thought about) how terribly Korean people in Japan were treated – liked outsiders, like dogs. Shunted off to live in ghettos and constantly jeered and spat at. It was eye-opening. I’m so used to taking the side of victimized Chinese people – during the Nanjing Massacre, in America from 1850 on, etc – that I’ve never once thought about other inter-Asian relations. It’s horrific the extent to which people can mistreat each other when given the liberty. This book was a history lesson, but also a reminder about how brutal human nature can be.

And yet…the overarching themes of Pachinko come back to hope and survival and patience. It’s not a book with exaggerated emotions nor a thrilling page-turner, as Western writing usually is. It’s something subtler and more nuanced, and I know it’s going to be sticking with me for a while.

2 thoughts on “Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

    1. Thank you! It was a new experience for me too. I started intentionally reading books by Asian authors last year, and finally *really* understand why everyone should read foreign authors – the perspectives and writing styles really are so different. It’s very eye-opening.

      Liked by 1 person

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