Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
US pub date: February 7, 2017
A beautiful book from start to finish. Gentle, elegant, and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.
Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family through multiple generations, spanning nearly a hundred years and multiple locations. The novel begins against the backdrop of the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and as the story progresses, it explores the unique discrimination faced by Koreans living in Japan in the twentieth century.
Our story commences with Sunja, a young woman from a small Korean town who finds herself pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and seemingly out of options. When a traveling minister, a kind-hearted but sickly man, agrees to take her to Japan and marry her, the wheels of the story are set into motion, as we follow Sunja, her husband Isak, and the life they manage to create together while facing constant adversity.
This is a quiet book whose thematic richness is all the more powerful for the subtlety with which it is rendered. Questions of home, nationality, and cultural identity permeate this nearly 500 page narrative, manifesting and reinforcing themselves in the lives of characters across generations, but Min Jin Lee rather expertly leaves the reader to draw our own conclusions. Lee resists any temptation to simplify the complicated Japanese-Korean relationship, as the ambitiously sweeping narrative manages to paint a comprehensive picture of the Korean immigrant experience. Historical elements are integrated seamlessly into our story of the fictional Baek family, continuously edifying but never overwhelming the reader. While Lee’s careful narrative doesn’t dilute the intricacy of the topics which she showcases, it’s still a rather accessible introduction for readers who may not be familiar with the complex socio-political history of these two countries.
Lee’s writing is light and elegant, and for such a long novel the pace rarely falters. While it may not be a story filled to the brim with action, it keeps you turning pages, mourning and grieving and celebrating with these characters who feel as close as family by the end. I raced through this in a couple of days and now feel sad that it’s over.
Above all else a nuanced exploration of cultural identity, Pachinko is an incredible achievement. I cannot recommend this highly enough to fans of family sagas, historical fiction, fiction set in East Asia, or really any reader who just wants a good story.