Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee is my second Cannonball Bingo entry. I am using Pachinko to fill the “Uncannon” entry–a book not written by an old, white man. Min Jin Lee is a woman who was born in South Korea before moving to the United States at age seven. Even better, her book is a four-generational story of Koreans living as immigrants in Japan before and after World War II. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the lives of people whose stories I previously knew nothing about.
I’d heard of this book from a number of sources (it’s a National Book Award Finalist), so I had it on hold at the library. However, I kept putting off reading it. I was slightly intimidated by its size and scope. I know very little of the history of Korea and Japan, and I thought I might find it a difficult read. But when my friend invited me to a Pen and Podium lecture where Min Jin Lee would be speaking, it renewed my interest. Unfortunately, the speaking engagement was canceled because of Covid, but I wanted to read Pachinko anyway, in the optimistic hopes of it being rescheduled–someday.
I really enjoyed this book. I was worried that it might be densely historical and unrelatable. That was not the case. Lee focuses on her characters, their relationships, and their humanity, which makes this book feel universal. Lee stated in the reading group guide at the back of the book that, “[a]bove all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” I think she succeeded. Every character feels real. Even though their actions differ greatly, and you might not agree with them, you can see and understand their motivations. Lee also explores themes surrounding immigration, identity, homeland, bigotry, and prejudice.
Sunja lives near a small fishing village in Korea with her parents during the Japanese occupation. “Nobody should expect praise, and certainly not a woman, but as a little girl, she’d been treasured, nothing less.” However, after her father’s death, she is seduced and impregnated by a much older, wealthy man (Hansu). She refuses his offer to become his mistress and instead marries Isak–a kind, honorable young minister who happened to be staying at their guest house on his way to live in Japan.
Sunja leaves her mother and home to travel to Osaka with Isak. They live with Isak’s brother, Yoseb and his beautiful wife Kyunghee in a ghetto area of the city–the only place Koreans are allowed to live. Their lives continue on with plenty of injustice and suffering. World War II breaks out, which also affects their lives deeply. The end of World War II brings an end to Japanese colonization of South Korea, but the beginning of a separated Korea. I appreciated that Lee approached the war from the characters’ points of view. She didn’t go into detail about strategy and fighting. We only learn that men are going off to war, that food is getting even scarcer, and the atom bomb severely damages someone they know.
We follow Sunja in this story, but also her children, her in-laws, her grandchildren, and her mother. This could have been a very dark story, and it certainly is in parts. However, there is so much love, care, and devotion within Sunja’s family that it is often uplifting as well. I sometimes find books with such a long narrative challenging, but I was always interested in what was happening. I am impressed by what Lee was able to do. Most of the time when I think of immigrants, I think of immigrants coming to America. To see immigrants trying to succeed in a different country but facing the same bigotry and prejudice that they’ve often seen here was thought provoking. One romantic relationship between a Korean-American woman and a Korean-Japanese man was particularly interesting. Yes, they were both Korean, but their experiences were so different they had a hard time relating to each other. Definitely recommended.
“You are very brave, Noa, Much, much braver than me. Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
“Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests.”
“[B]ut she had prematurely reached the stage in a woman’s life when no one noticed her entering or leaving a room”
“He’d washed off most of it, but a shadow of the stain remained on his fingertips.”
“There was more to being something than just blood. The space between Phoebe and him could not close, and if he was decent, he had to let her go home.”
Comment from the author:
“I am interested in the physicality of women who live their daily struggles with integrity; their beauty captivates those who know them.”
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.