Born to hard-working Korean parents who run a boarding-house for fisherman, Sunja is expecting a hard life full of work and suffering until a chance encounter with a powerful businessman sets her life and her family’s fortunes on a far different trajectory as they embark on new lives in Japan. Through the following decades, which comprise most of the 20th century, Sunja, her sons, and the wider family that develops around them will go through all the vicissitudes of life while trying to stick together as a family.
Sunja’s two sons are as different as can be, with Noa the quiet and studious one while younger brother Mozasu can’t stand school and is quick to get into fights. While Noa winds up at a prestigious university thanks to a benefactor and Mosazu quits school to work a menial job in a Pachinko parlor, neither of their lives goes exactly as they or anyone else would think.
If there’s one criticism I have for the novel it would be it’s lack of a central character or plotline. The cast of characters expands so much that some of them disappear for long stretches of the story. Other characters are given a surprising amount of time for their lack of relevance to the overall thrust of the novel. For instance, at one point a chapter is devoted to Mozasu’s best friend’s wife, who makes no other appearances in the novel. Whereas Sunja’s sister-in-law Kyunghee is a major presence in the first half of the novel before her arc fizzles out entirely. I suppose it could be argued that that’s true to life in some ways, but it’s still surprising in a work of fiction.
That being said, Pachinko is still a particularly impressive example of the multi-generational novel. Though confined within the story of a single family, the novel builds outward and manages to explore a wide swath of history. Racism, religion, war, poverty, disease, and technology all prevail upon Lee’s characters, and their fates are inextricably entwined with those of their two home countries. In addition, the normal human foibles, like drinking, gambling, and sex, wreak havoc on their lives. And of course, on top of all that there’s plain-old random chance. In short, Pachinko is really a book about life itself. Its impressive scope is equaled by its understanding of human nature.