Pachinko is one of those books that rips your heart out, but then tenderly stitches the pieces back together for you. Min Jin Lee has crafted- yes, "crafted," because this story is an exquisite tapestry woven of narratives and heartbreak- an incredible story of love and loss, faith and family. It's all rooted in history, with experiences inspired by interviews that Lee had with South Korean migrants in Japan. Read on for my review below!
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.
So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
How do I describe the ways in which Pachinko made me weep tears of both joy and sadness? First, let's start with the storytelling. Lee seamlessly weaves several different narratives together as time passes, for all men must die and even the precious little boys must grow up. It is told through a detached third-person narrative, so while the writing itself is filled with detail and each character is given a distinct personality, major events are described in a very straightforward way. This lends to the flow of the book. Those major events are often the real-life resolutions of conflicts or tragedy. They feel like a punch to the gut, yet moves the story forward because in the end, this is not a story defined by the events of one lifetime- no, this is a story of humankind and they endure. Suffice it to say, Pachinko kept me on the edge of my seat in this way.
The characters are wonderfully complex. Without spoiling too much of the book, we watch quite a few of the main characters grow from infancy to adulthood, and for some, all the way to their passing. Lee does an incredible job of rounding out these characters and helping the reader see how their psyches have been shaped by their family's legacy and their country's history. There is clear character progression in every chapter. While we might not always agree with the decisions that are being made, Lee at least explains the motivations behind each decision. One particular scene that especially tugged at my heart was when Sunja found herself to be incredibly successful at selling kimchi on the streets in Japan, despite her son's reluctance to help her and the embarrassment that comes with being a roadside vendor. This display of entrepreneurship, though, is a pivotal moment, and inspires this generation to create better lives for themselves and for their families.
Make no mistake about it, Pachinko takes place during a devastatingly bleak time in East Asian history and forces readers to come to terms the various forms in which discrimination can take place. While I've described it as a book about the triumphs of family and the strength of humanity, it's also about the cruelty that people are capable of at the very same time.
I rate Pachinko 5/5 stars!