Pachinko is a beautiful and engrossing multi-generational family saga that spans most of the 20th century, from 1900s Korea to 1980s Japan. The story begins with Sunja, the daughter of a poor yet proud family who runs a boarding house. An unexpected pregnancy involving a married man threatens her family’s honour until a young, frail minister offers to marry her and take her to Japan.
I’m not familiar with Korean history, so it was fascinating for me to read about the racism they experienced in Japan, and how much they struggled just to make ends meet. The family’s story also intersects with the social and political turmoil of their era. Christianity is forbidden, and a character is imprisoned when they were caught mouthing the Lord’s Prayer at a Shinto temple instead of pledging allegiance to the Emperor. Characters fear for their family members back in Korea, where the communist government is said to kill farmers for their land.
I couldn’t help but lose myself in the story of Sunja’s family. I was fascinated to read about the kimchi business Sunja and her sister-in-law set up, and how homemade sweets and kimchi were sold in the streets to hungry commuters. Lee does a beautiful job setting the scene, such that I can almost imagine being there in the heat and among the smells. I also loved reading about the cast of other characters, from the sister-in-law who became her best friend, the brother-in-law whose pride and machismo threaten their family’s well-being, and Sunja’s two sons. Bookish Noa and fun-loving Mozasu couldn’t be more different, yet their stories unfold along surprisingly similar paths. And when Noa’s birth father, the man who abandoned Sunja in Korea yet never stopped loving her, finds her again, the story teases away at the tensions within family and identity, blood and upbringing, and how much you’re willing to give up for financial security.
The title comes from pachinko (pinball) parlours, which according to the story, is how many Koreans made their wealth in Japan. The characters seem to have a complicated view of pachinko. On one hand, it’s a way to escape poverty and become successful despite their Korean heritage, but on the other hand, pachinko parlours are associated with gambling and organized crime, and are therefore not seen as a good future. It’s introduced fairly late in the novel, yet is a rich metaphor for all the questions, tensions and emotions that are roiling about through this family’s story. Lee is a very talented writer, and while the narrative itself is fairly linear, Pachinko feels like the kind of story that will be experienced differently each time you read it. It will also likely resonate on a much richer level with readers who are familiar with the history of Koreans in Japan, and may catch references to things that I was just learning about as I read.
Pachinko is a wonderful, immersive story that you can just lose yourself in. It’s an intimate portrait of several generations that is also full of rich, fascinating historical insight. It made the list of my top 10 books read in 2016, and I’ll definitely be on the look out for her earlier novel Free Food for Millionaires.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.