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Review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Rating: 4.5 / 5 Stars

Favorite Quote: “Neither had realized the loneliness each had lived with for such a long time until the loneliness was interrupted by genuine affection.”

Synopsis: In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant--and that her lover is married--she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son's powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan's finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee's complex and passionate characters--strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis--survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

Review: This is a beautifully written story of family, love, and sacrifices. This book had me feeling all of the emotions in real time, gasping in shock, laughing, and shedding tears for beloved characters. It does not take long to become invested in the characters and their lives. At the beginning of the story Sunja is a teenager and meets an older guy who introduces sex and relationships to her. From that moment her trajectory changes course time and time again.

My first critical thoughts of the novel revolve around Hansu's relationship with Sunja. It felt as though he was grooming her. He was interested in a naive young woman and took advantage of her innocence and trust in him. Their relationship evolves so much during the course of their lives. It did seem as though Hansu would always love Sunja and try to provide everything he could for her and her family. There were times when the family desperately needed money. Hansu initially set up a job for Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee making kimchi for one of his restaurants. He thought this was the best way to give them good money where they were working hard but still able to take care of their family well. He took care of them during the bombings in WWII. He found Sunja's mother in Korea and brought them back together. He paid for Noa's room and board, and tuition to go to University. In his own way he tried really hard to take care of her. One of Hansu's character flaws was that he got his money as a ganster with the Yakuza. Sunja and the family thought of his money as dirty and not worked for. I think that all of the Korean characters were handed a bad lot when they had to move to Japan for work. Hansu did the best that he could for the people he cared about most, which were Sunja and Noa. Spoiler:( I was floored when he showed up at Sunja's mother's funeral and asked her to marry him.) He thought of her the whole time he was with his first wife. He stated multiple times that he could not divorce because of her father's status in the gang. If things were different I think that Hansu would have wanted to live an honest life and could have been faithful in a marriage to Sunja, unlike that to his first wife.

Throughout the novel the perspectives switches to various members of the family and the people they know. At times this made it difficult to follow and certain events did not get the attention they deserved. Characters would marry and die in a few sentences. Then decades could pass by the end of the page. One of the most disconnected lenses to view the narrative was Haruki's wife. She felt very removed from the story as a whole, only working to give us a glimpse of the concealed homosexual culture in Japan at the time? As a whole I felt that the alternating perspectives helped to give a fully rounded narrative. The development of characters as they grow older and become more able to expand the perspective was well used to tell the story.

It was difficult to read about the level of discrimination that Japanese-born Koreans dealt with. All of the characters are exposed to insults and set backs due to their ethnicity. While some use this as motivation to prove themselves despite the stereotypes against them, some characters are driven to terribly desperate measures including suicide. Later in the book, problems arise where the characters fear being deported to Korea if they ever have a run in with the police. Sunja's sons and their children have never been to Korea and would have nothing to return to. This topic felt relevant with the Dreamers in the US with DACA. While the story is a historical fiction, the problems that people faced were true in Korea in the 1900s and true today.

Pachinko should be considered necessary reading. This book covers the topics of war, racism, poverty, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. This will become a classic soon enough. The ability to see so many different perspectives of living as a Korean in Japan during that time is unparalleled. As someone who does not typically read historical fiction, this was a wonderful book that made me feel a part of the time period. If you are interested in Asian culture and family dynamics I 100% recommend this book.

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