Pachinko is just the kind of book I love. It starts in Korea in the early 1900s with Hoonie, a young man with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Despite his deformities he marries and his wife gives birth to a daughter, Sunja. When Sunja is a young teenager she makes some bad choices and ends up pregnant. The man who is to be the father is already married, and Sunja is ashamed of her mistake; but proud and determined she refuses to be his mistress. A single, kind pastor, sickly as a child and unable to find a wife, offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a life together.
Author Min Jin Lee takes us through the World Wars, the painful suffering and poverty of the Koreans in Japan, and the small victories of these family members. We become immersed in complex relationships, quests for education, financial success, faith and identity, nationality controversies, the shady Pachinko business, and organized crime. The strength of women is exemplified in many of the characters as well as the challenges both men and women faced due to the culture, tradition and society.
The story concludes in 1989 in Tokyo following the life of Solomon, Sunja’s grandson, Hoonie’s great grandson. The incredible generational saga is told with great description and background information about Korean-Japanese relationships, culture and class. For me it was not an emotional rollercoaster tear jerker, but a transportation in time where I was absorbed in Korean and Japanese culture; I was captivated, shocked at times and engrossed for all 485 pages. I was unaware of the discrimination and prejudice Koreans felt in Japan and how the laws disallowed Koreans born in Japan to be considered Japanese citizens and therefore considered foreigners. It’s a huge bonus when a book gives me a reason to do additional research…this well written novel was a pleasure to read; from the multi facetted, complex and expressive characters to the rich and unsettling history of Koreans and Japanese, I couldn’t put it down and I learned a lot too!
As stated in Goodreads:
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.
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.
As stated on the book jacket:
Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, Free Food For Millionaires, was one of the “Top 10 Novels of the Year” for the Times (London), NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her writings have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Times (London), Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, and Food & Wine. Her essays and literary criticism have been anthologized widely. She served as a columnist for the Chosun Ilbo, the leading paper of South Korea. She lives in New York with her family.