PACHINKO: BOOK REVIEW
What would make you leave home?
Pachinko written by Min Jin Lee traces four generations of a family, between 1910 to 1989, from Korea to Japan. After a woman named Sunja is impregnated, she must leave her home in Yeongdo, Busan and start a new life in Osaka. The turbulent tale follows Sunja and her family amid the political chaos, as Korea is held under Japan’s rule. Both politics and warfare exacerbate the economic predisposition of her family and take a toll on the wellbeing of multiple characters.
The beauty of the novel lies in the characters’ intricacies. For instance, we quite literally watch Sunja grow from an infant into adulthood, and old age. Reader’s instantaneously make a bond to Sunja’s character, and for many femme readers, sympathy is shared and abundant. As she goes from her mother’s boarding house in Korea to her new home in Japan, she is forced to depend on her independence and crafts a business of her own. She begins by selling Kimchi near the train station in Osaka, and her haggling eventually develops into stability.
There is a larger contribution this book makes to a growing historical narrative that must also be recognized. Pachinko uncovers the volatile discrimination many Koreans faced when encountering Japanese people, even in their homeland. For instance, on her way back to her mother’s boarding house Sunja encounters a group of Japanese boys who sexually harass her, utilizing her Korea ethnicity as a reason for such behavior. However, this is one of many points where these characters undergo such hardship and prejudice— the mistreatment of Koreans is exhibited throughout the entire book. The prejudice follows these characters like their shadows at every point of their lives.
Simply categorizing this book as “fictional” undermines the immense social and historical contribution it creates. In fact, many examples of discrimination shown in the text are drawn from interviews Lee had with individuals who faced it first-hand. Lee has said, “As I wrote Pachinko, I interviewed many Korean Japanese, individuals who suffered a hundred thousand times more than I’ve ever suffered in my life. What struck me most of all was how resilient they were—how much joy they felt, despite everything that had happened to them.” What is behind each character is the living experiences of real individuals we may come across ourselves. She breathes these experiences into Sunja’s life and everyone else’s, embodying humanity and emotion.
Lee does a phenomenal job of capturing and defining each individual. While we follow Sunja most closely, she creates a unification between each character we come across— she is only one of many fully defined and followed. Not a single individual is static. Each has their own path and personal obstacles. The collective value is illuminated through the narrative-based organization of each chapter, where Lee often hones in on character but never remains completely focused on only one person.
Like a maze made of brass needles, the story drops you in like a Pachinko ball, constantly taking you through endless twists and turns to discover the unimaginable. The story is calm, the story is romantic. It also becomes extremely thrilling and distressing. The novel is a documentation of real experience. It is about the collective, not the individual.
Pachinko is definitely a must-read for this quarantine.