Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a book that I read and reviewed last year. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) for it and remember blowing through the novel within a few days. Unfortunately, I had plenty of other ARCs to read and review, and as such I never gave Pachinko the proper review that it deserved. At the beginning of the month, I picked the book up again so that I could read the finished edition, and this time I wanted to give it the review that I should have written last year. If anyone is curious, you can check out the original review here. I will not be removing it.
Pachinko is an #OwnVoices Korean historical fiction novel that is also a multi-generational saga following a family as they leave their home in Korea after Japan has colonised the country. The story begins with Sunja, who due to certain circumstances finds herself marrying a Korean Christian minister, Baek Isak, in her home city of Busan. Upon marrying, they move to Osaka, Japan where Isak plans on living with his brother until he and Sunja can obtain a place of their own. From there we follow Sunja and Isak, and two generations of their family, as they are faced with many hardships that will test their strength of conviction repeatedly.
I am going to begin by saying that this is one of the most profound novels that I have ever read. While it is far from perfect, the stories that it shares and the histories that is shines a light upon are extremely important. As such, I feel the book would make an excellent accompaniment to any history class that focuses on both Japanese history and Korean history, as well as classes that analyse culture and the long-term psychological affects that forced assimilation and colonialism has on an entire group of people, whether as a nation or their individual cultural identities.
One of the most important themes within Pachinko is the intergenerational transference of trauma, prejudice against oneself, and social and cultural antipathy that is caused by living in a country that treats you like you are less than human simply because of your ethnicity. Years and years of living with xenophobia, racism, classism, gender inequity, segregation, and forced acclimatisation has severely impactful consequences, not only on the people who move into this environment, but also on the children who are born into and raised in such climates. An excellent example of this is how Koreans were forced to obtain new Japanese names to replace their Korean ones, so they could fit into Japanese society better and erase their Korean individualities as much as possible. Another is the brutalisation of Korean children in school by Japanese children, constantly being called names and having people telling them they are “stupid” and “ugly” because of their heritage. Kids and adults alike telling all Koreans to die or go kill themselves.
“…because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realised that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.”
Every member of the Baek family experiences harsh treatment for what they are, all in different forms. Isak suffers for being Christian and not worshipping the Emperor by being treated as a criminal in the worst ways. Sunja’s son, Noa, suffers from the worst kind of displacement that a child can feel by never feeling accepted anywhere—by both Koreans and Japanese alike—and always being treated as an outsider and an object to be poked and provoked rather than just a person who wants to succeed and build a life like anyone else. We see this in Soloman, Sunja’s grandson, who finds some semblance of success, but being Korean prevents him from reaching the top; it even shoves him back down to the bottom where he must begin anew.
All of the personal challenges that the Baek family encounters are marvellously interlaced with the political strife they faced in the wake of being colonised by the Japanese, first when Japan invaded Korea, and then again when World War II ended and the nation was split into North and South, preventing them from ever being able to return to their homes. This blending creates a distinct and provocative voice that illustrates the continuous struggles and animosity that Koreans faced in Japan and continue to face today in one way or another, especially for those who were determined to stay and build a life in the nation. It is excruciatingly gruelling to build a future in a place that makes it impossible for you to have any legal rights while living there.
“…the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.”
While the contents of the book make it vastly important and a must-read, especially for fans of accurately portrayed and genuine historical fiction, the book is not without flaws that some readers will find frustrating.
The first is the writing. The way that Min Jin Lee has constructed the novel, at times makes it very easy to empathise with this family, which evokes very strong emotional responses. The writing style is detached as it is in the third person perspective, but this unique impartiality also makes the difficulties grimmer to stomach as you read from one page to another. At times the frank and flowing prose is esoteric as you anticipate what will happen next, while other times certain astonishing plot points are delivered in such a cold and stoic manner that it diminishes the impact of whatever terrible thing has occurred. An example of this would be where death is concerned. It is carried with such matter-of-factness that it took me a second to process what had happened. I felt robbed of an important reaction every time it occurred.
There is also some inconsistency between the varying perspectives depending on the generation that is being explored. The earlier generations felt more polished and eloquently written, while the later generations felt brusque and unrefined. I suspect this may have been done to match the tone of the novel to the relative time, but the execution leaves it feeling disjointed, as the book is most decidedly broken into Part A, Part B, and Part C. A good example of this is the last generation’s plight. The issues being surveyed felt immensely rushed until we meet a very minor character who gets so much attention as to feel tedious and unnecessary. I understand this character’s perspective was vital towards making a point, but it easily could have been made with half the attention given; creating a more flowing and less boring result.
Lastly, and this is more of a minor issue, the time jumps felt awkward to me, like they happened too hastily, before wrapping up the current situation or scenario. There were some perspectives that reached an unsatisfyingly abrupt ending, while others were left to jangle in limbo.
Overall, Pachinko is a wonderful feat of historical fiction writing that humanises the plight of those who have been victim to colonisation and brutal dehumanising via myriad forms of abuse and prejudice, focusing intently on the diasporic people’s internal conflicts that arise from such trauma; being the “other.” It does come with flaws, yet the benefits and intellectual and emotional rewards far outweigh it. I highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, multi-generational sagas, and East Asian histories and literature.
4.25 pocket watches outta 5!
**Note: For anyone who is curious as to why the book is titled Pachinko, it has to do with the way the Japanese viewed the game. It was a game that was essentially a form of gambling, associated with the lowliest types of people—crooks, liars, gangsters, tricksters, etc.—which is indictive of how Japanese society viewed and treated Koreans, most of whom were very hard-working individuals. It is also allegorical for how life is a gamble and you never know what you will be dealt. Occasionally, you must take control of your own fate by tinkering with a pin here or there to get the ball to fall into the right slot. More often than not, even if you do not agree with where the ball lands, it can end up being the best thing for you as an individual, and you just never realised it.**