Buzzfeed actually had a semi useful quiz a few weeks ago along the lines of, “answer these questions, and we’ll recommend a book.” My result was Pachinko so when I saw it prominently displayed at Barnes and Noble, I figured it meant I should go ahead and get it.
Pachinko is one of those books that is always harder to review because while very well done, as a multi-generational family drama, there is a certain amount of familiarity to the general strokes of the story. “Poor family, faces hardship and war, changing family fortunes, works hard, maybe eventually creates a better life for the next generations but then by the end there is a certain amount of sadness because the new generation never quite understands the sacrifices and hardships the previous generations went through” – this could basically apply to a multitude of these types of books – Shanghai Girls, Honolulu, etc. Additionally, sometimes it can be harder to feel too sympathetic to the most recent generations considering that their difficulties are the disconnectedness of living in the ’80s (or ’90s etc.) while the original family members live through wars and violent persecution.
One thing I appreciated about Pachinko, however, is that it chose to tell that family saga from a perspective that was new to me, even if certain situations were familiar and universal. Rather than being another story of immigrants coming to America, Lee focuses on a Korean woman, Sunja, and her family in Japan. In the US, we are familiar with stories involving immigrants attempting to hold on to their culture as their families assimilate, but in Japan there is a whole other piece to the dynamic. Being born in Japan (at least at the time of this novel) did not make one a Japanese citizen so second and third generation descendants of Sunja were still struggling with their place in the world with citizenship to Korea, a country they had never been to, while Japan, the country where they were born, could deport them and saw them as inferior.
As alluded to above, while a multi-generational novel, the “main” character is Sunja. When she is introduced, she is the teenage daughter of a working class family that makes money by taking in lodgers. As the only surviving child of a couple that never expected to have a family, Sunja is doted on but not spoiled. As a teenager, she meets a man, trusts too easily, and ends up pregnant as happens so often in historical novels. While the father of the child is more than willing to provide, he is also married, and Sunja rejects his offer to make her a kept woman. She ends up agreeing to marry a sickly minister, Isak Baek, who stayed with her family on his way to Osaka to join his brother in Japan. Once there, the novel explores the conditions of Koreans in Japan, the prejudices and difficulties they faced as well as gender dynamics and culture over the next forty years of history as it follows Sunja and her descendants.
I appreciated that Lee didn’t always make the character choices I thought she would so that while there were absolutely sad moments, they weren’t all quite as tragic as I thought they might be and have seen in other novels of this sort. However, I also feel that when truly sad and tragic things happened I maybe wasn’t quite as connected as I could have been so it was easy to think, “oh that’s too bad” but not get too emotional about any of the things that h
appened in the novel – the events were more poignant than tragic. This may have been due to the choice Lee made with regards to her narrative voice, stating that she wanted her “tone to be fair” in the author interview at the end of the novel. Sunja is a stoic character that spends her whole life working for her family’s well being, so between her stoicism and the fair tone, the novel didn’t dwell too much on the tragedies, and just made them part of life. The good news always ends up being tinged with something bad or bittersweet but that is rather true to life. I quite enjoyed the novel and would absolutely recommend it but would say overall, it left me with a sense of melancholy rather than very strong reactions.