This is a book about luck and love and sex and history and hate and imperialism, and, most of all, about playing the hand you’ve been dealt.
Pachinko is a great big family saga. The main character, if there is one, is introduced fairly early on: Sunja, a teenager living with her mother who runs a boarding house in a fishing village in (what is now South) Korea, during Japanese occupation. A suave older man seduces her, one thing leads to the next, (this actually was my favorite part of the book, so I don’t want to spoil it!) and she ends up immigrating to Japan to start her family. The story follows her parents, her children, and the various loves, jobs, marriages, work, and political trials.
I loved the setting. This is a time and place I know next to nothing about, so the descriptions of life in rural Korea and of the political temperaments of the time were fascinating. Sunja’s character was my favorite because she was so well-drawn and realistic–stubborn and humble and tough and conflicted and oh my god can you imagine leaving your the only home you’d ever known, in rural Korea, at 17, pregnant, and moving to a huge city where you don’t speak the language, don’t know anyone, and don’t know if you’ll ever see your home or mother again?
But I had two significant reading-problems with Pachinko: first, I found the language, frankly, a bit dull. In the earliest chapters, it was plainspoken and charming. A bit Murakami-reminiscent–evocative and straightforward. But by the end (it’s a long book) the prose bored me. Second, I thought the new characters introduced at the end felt like caricatures. They annoyed me, rather than adding something illustrative to the plot, or showing anything new about the characters I’d just spent days with. Often, chapters would end with what you’d think would be a cliffhanger–someone dies, someone’s secret is discovered, etc, but then the plot just moves along down the road a few years, leaving you to wonder about the immediate after effects of this major life events. Again, evocative and poetic the first few times; grating by the end of the book.
5 stars for ambition, 4 for enjoyment, and 3 for chances of recommending it to someone else. I liked it, and it made me think about a time and place I’d never really considered before–the author clearly did her history homework, and the details of how huge events (Nagasaki and Hiroshima, for instance) affected individual’s lives were really beautifully done. Many of the characters and their situations were deeply moving; some not so much.
I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read it.