“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee
490 pages, Grand Central Publishing
Published Feb. 7, 2017
“There was more to being something than just blood.”
“Pachinko” is a multi-generational story following a Korean family from the early 1900s to the eve of the 1990s. It begins with Sunja, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and marries Isak, a sickly minister who wants to rescue her from shame. They move to Japan, where she and her children and their children struggle to find their identity in a culture that belittles Koreans. There is triumph and tragedy throughout as the family strives to assimilate, often losing sight of its roots and doing anything necessary to succeed.
It took me a hundred pages or so to really get into this book, and even then I found it to be a bit slow paced at times. However, I learned a lot about Japanese and Korean relations that I either never knew or didn’t retain from my schooling.
What resonated most with me was Sunja’s relationship with her son Noa. She and her husband Isak do all they can to raise him right, and they are proud of his ambition and hunger for learning. But when Noa learns the identity of his biological father, he feels a heavy burden of shame that alters his perspective.
“Yakuzas are the filthiest people in Japan. They are thugs; they are common criminals … I took money for my education from a yakuza, and you thought this was acceptable? … How could you make something clean from something dirty? And now, you have made me dirty … All my life, I have had Japanese tell me that my blood is Korean – that Koreans are violent, angry criminals. I had to endure this … But this blood, my blood is Korean, and now I learn my blood is yakuza blood. I can never change this no matter what I do. It would better if I had never been born … I am cursed.”
Being a multi-generational story, there are so many facets to “Pachinko” that I feel if I lay them all out you might as well not even read the book. It is complex and beautifully woven, a tale from a land far different from my own. Yet the common themes of family, gender roles, career advancement, wealth and poverty, faith, etc., and the conflicts and evolutions of these themes throughout history, are universal in scope.
I received an ARC through a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.
About the author
Min Jin Lee went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for
Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She then attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full time.
Her debut novel FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES was a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, a NEW YORK TIMES Editor’s Choice, a WALL STREET JOURNAL Juggle Book Club selection, and a national bestseller; it was a Top 10 Novels of the Year for THE TIMES of London, NPR’s FRESH AIR and USA TODAY. FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES was also published in the U.K. (Random House, 2007), South Korea (Image Box Publishing) and Italy (Einaudi).
She lives in Tokyo with her husband and son where she is working on her second novel PACHINKO.