Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko

‘You’re living for a dream of a home that no longer exists’.

I had such high hopes for Pachinko after seeing and reading about it a lot on social media and although I really got into the sweeping, multigenerational story of one Korean family in Japan, overall I just didn’t get the hype.

Beginning in, what is now, South Korea, Min Jin Lee positions her story near the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea. As landed aristocrats are being forced to pay extortionate rates for their property, Hoonie is living a quiet, humble life in the fishing village of Yeongdo with his parents. Born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot, he was the only offspring of his parents’ to survive and with his poor beginnings he doesn’t hold much hope of continuing the family name. That is until the local matchmaker arrives at his father’s boardinghouse in the spring of 1911. Soon Hoonie ends up a happily married man with a beautiful, perfectly-formed daughter whom he unapologetically dotes on. It isn’t until his daughter, Sunja, is almost a grown woman, with Hoonie passed away, that the Japanese invasion begins to encroach on their little fishing village.

‘The penalties incurred for the mistakes you made had to be paid out in full to the members of your family’.

A mistake Sunja makes as a young woman – one that has pulled her away from her ageing mother and the home she has always known – comes back to haunt her again and again as she begins a new life in Japan with her loving and understanding husband, Isak. Giving birth to two healthy sons devoid of the inflictions Sunja’s father had, Pachinko then follows these doomed lives of Noa and Mozasu and, eventually, Mozasu’s son, Solomon. Beginning with the initial Japanese occupation of Korea and traversing through Japan during and after the Second World War, Lee’s novel covers a lot of ground.

With unexpected turns, relatable characters and an intriguing plot, Min Jin Lee writes in a very compelling way. I enjoyed the pace of the novel and how absorbed I became with this family’s life. There were elements, such as Noa’s story, that I thought were really well done. However, there were other parts, like how Sunja seemed to diminish as a strong female character as the story progressed, that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Perhaps this was a comment about how when women reach a certain age no one notices if they enter or leave a room, which is echoed later in the book. I felt like Sunja just became part of the wallpaper as the narrative focused more on her sons and grandson. She had so much promise at the beginning of the novel – she was a survivor, a fighter – but then she was just reduced to the stereotypical mother role, which I found to be unfair. There were also other female characters – such as Mozasu’s Japanese girlfriend and her daughter – who I found much more nuanced and interesting but the frustrating, unrelenting refrain, ‘a woman’s life is endless work and suffering’, was repeated numerous times throughout Pachinko and these women were no exception. None of the women were ever able to escape this vicious cycle, even as we moved nearer to the present day.

‘And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones’.

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