Pachinko is the saga of a Korean family that spans 79 years, beginning in Korea in 1910 and ending in Japan in 1989. Being a weighty tome covering five generations, it’s hard to summarize the plot, though the main story begins with Sunja, the only surviving child of a struggling Korean couple who run a boarding house in Busan, Korea. Sunja’s father, Hoonie, has a cleft palate and a crooked leg, which already damages Sunja’s chances of finding a good husband, since families feared the physical deformities would be passed on to their grandchildren. Sunja’s unexpected pregnancy by a married man, whom she foolishly believes wants to marry her, threatens to bring shame upon her entire family. The family’s salvation arrives in the form of Baek Isak, a Christian pastor who falls ill while staying at the boardinghouse during a brief stop on his way to Osaka. His gratitude toward the family for caring for him in his illness, his own limited options for marriage, and his general saintliness lead him to propose that he marry Sunja and she go with him to Japan. The story follows Sunja’s life in Japan, the birth of her sons, Noa and Mozasu, her reconnection with Noa’s father, Hansu, and the lives of her children and grandchildren. As I said, the scale is epic.
There is much to like in this novel. The writing is beautiful and restrained, detailing hardship and injustice without becoming maudlin. As my review quote indicates, a heavy focus is on the role of women and the reality of navigating an unjust world while caring for their families (variations of “a woman’s role is suffering” resonate throughout the novel). Most interesting, I think, is the focus on the relationship between Korea and Japan in the twentieth century, particularly the theme of identity and what it means to be Korean. Koreans living in Japan not only faced prejudice and limitations on their rights, they also suffered an identity crisis, where being successful in Japan often felt like betraying their heritage while never really being accepted by either country. This is expressed best by Haruki, a school friend of Mozasu who eventually becomes a detective of considerable rank in Japan. “This country isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.”
Unfortunately, I had some problems with this novel that kept me from loving it the way I expected and wanted. Writing an epic story while giving each character their due is tricky, and that’s where Pachinko falls short for me. There were may times where I felt like I was on the verge of really seeing a character’s inner life only for the novel to let me down. Sunja’s brother-in-law Yoseb is a perfect example. We get glimmers of him: sometimes he is a strong family man and sometimes he is, to put it simply, an asshole. I understand this is 1945 Japan and he has to be a strong patriarch. The pressure on him to care for his family and his sense of pride must be unfathomable. I can fill in those blanks myself, but I wish the novel helped me get there by revealing more of him. I don’t normally like having everything spelled out, but Pachinko takes a third-person omniscient point of view, so gaps in characters’ inner lives feel like a real miss.
By extending the story from Sunja’s grandparents (in the first few pages) to her grandchildren, it takes on too much. We get characters flitting in and out who seem really interesting, only to be disappointed when they are gone in a few pages. I also think some of the major characters get short shrift. Without spoiling anything, a major character dies very suddenly and, while such sudden demises may be realistic, I didn’t feel it served the story well. I honestly felt nothing during an episode that should have been heartbreaking. Overall, I wish the author had kept Sunja as the main focus and adopted a more limited point-of-view.
Pachinko is definitely worth reading, but I would temper expectations. The first third is the most interesting, with the story becoming less engaging as it gets further away from Sunja as the main character. It has some lovely moments and poignant insights, but overall it could have been more cohesive.