Pachinko: Book Review

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“It was not Hansu that she missed, or even Isak. What she was seeing again in her dreams was her youth, her beginning, and her wishes–so this is how she became a woman.”

“Etsuko had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

“Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow, the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe such cruel ideals.”

Pachinko is a big book of big, complex, sometimes conflicting ideas. This is why I think it is a more accurate view of life.

Sunja is born in Korea pre-WWII and Korean War times that split the nation into the North and South of today. she is born into a relatively poor but surviving family, the daughter of a man born with several congenital deformities, a cleft lip and club foot. But he is an honorable man who loves his daughter. His honor resonates years later with a young minister with tuberculosis who agrees to marry the pregnant and unmarried Sunja and take her to Japan.

The book follows Sunja’s life, the struggles of being Korean in Japan when prejudice was high, being an outsider with no true homeland thanks to the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of Korea, and the timeless struggle of being a woman who must reckon with her choices and the choices of the men surrounding her.

Pachinko is a generational epic done right. The novel explores many themes as a generational story must, racism and prejudice, socioeconomic distinctions, gender roles, generational differences, guilt, redemption, love and lust. Sunja is a woman who makes mistakes, but as a woman her mistakes resonate throughout her lifetime, affecting not only herself but her loved ones.

This book is worth a read and a reread. My own generational novel is inspired by this book, her near flawless rendering of this family’s fall and rise, and fall and rise. I was not aware of the history that drives this novel, the consequences of WWII for Korea and displaced Koreans who could not return home. Historically the novel offers a lot of perspective and is a great example of the value of minority voices taking their rightful place in the global platform of such narratives.

5/5 Stars

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