Pachinko – 4.5 Star Review

“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”

-Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko starts off in the early 1900’s with the reader being introduced to a young girl named Sunja who is the fiercely loved daughter of a crippled fisherman in Korea. Sunja finds herself pregnant after falling for the allure of a wealthy Japanese stranger, but also discovers that her wealthy stranger already has a wife and children. Heartbroken Sunja refuses to be paid off by him and chooses to forge her own path alone, despite the great shame this situation brings to her family. The rest of the novel progresses through years of political warfare and Japanese colonization that affect four generations of Sunja’s family. We are taken down the path that Sunja chooses for herself when pregnant and how it affects her family as they struggle against racism, poverty and how they must create opportunities when none are given in order to survive.

This book is lengthy as it covers four generations but it is absolutely worth it. Pachinko is a heartbreaking read and one that I could not put down. I personally find Asian history so fascinating and their culture is so different from ours in America that I am always drawn to it. I read that it took Min Jin Lee 25 years to write Pachinko in which she temporarily lived in Japan for a portion of that time and held countless interviews with locals to help understand certain aspects of the culture, and it is nothing but an enormous benefit for the book. I learned so much while reading this, particularly how cultural and racial identity are profoundly important. Sunja and her family strive to be perceived as “good Koreans” to the Japanese who mostly view Koreans as nothing above gutter rats seeking refuge in their country.

It was so interesting to see how the cultural expectations change from the early 1900’s to the late 1980’s. Topics such as sexism, racism and sexual experiences are all prevalent in this story and transform through the years through each generation. The phrase “A woman’s lot is to suffer” is repeated throughout the story and do they ever. What is important is how the women persevere through their sufferings and do whatever it takes to support their family. The idea of forgiveness is also an important lesson throughout the novel. Can Sunja forgive her rich Japanese lover for not choosing her? Can Sunja’s children forgive her for the decisions she made in the past?

If you are a historical fiction lover or someone who enjoys dramatic family sagas then I wholeheartedly recommend this one. The story is told from an “omniscient narrator” perspective, so you get multiple points of view and insight from almost every character in the story. Since we go through four generations, a few small sections of the novel felt slightly unnecessary, as the story could have ultimately been complete without them. Due to this one single factor, I struggled with rating it 4.5 to 5 stars. I could pick out one section that belonged to a friend of the family in the later years that could have been removed and this would have been a knock-out 5 star read. Did I enjoy it regardless? Absolutely. Pachinko is a story that I will think about for a long time and I am forever grateful that authors like Min Jin Lee write these types of stories. As the opening line states: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

-Review by Kelly

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