My first read of 2018 — at least, the first book I started and finished this year — is a stunner, y’all, and it left me feeling absolutely drained. But in a good way, y’know? I tried explaining my feelings to my husband while I neared the end of the book and he was not having it at all.
Pachinko had been sitting on my shelf for 11 months. ELEVEN. I chose it as my February 2017 book in my BOTM box, and then I kind of just neglected the poor thing for basically — gulp — an entire year. But, in the spirit of Bookstagram’s #theunreadshelfproject, I made this hefty tome my first read of the year and it did not disappoint. In fact, I’m a little worried about the rest of 2018, because Min Jin Lee set the bar preeeeeetty damn high. (Sorry in advance, Other Books, which I shall spend the year comparing to this one…)
Synopsis: The novel opens in 1910 in Korea, in a small village where a man and his wife run a boarding house. In a few short pages, readers are given a short rundown of a couple generations and introduced to Yangjin, the widower who runs the boarding house in the 1920s, and her daughter, Sunja — a simple but sturdy girl who works diligently and efficiently alongside her mother. Sunja is 16 when she first meets Koh Hansu, a wealthy broker at the local market where Sunja does her shopping. Although Hansu is much older than Sunja, she is drawn to the clean, wealthy, kindly-seeming man when he rescues her from an undesirable situation. The two become friends, seemingly innocently, until one day Sunja becomes something else to Hansu: his lover. The two revel in one another’s company until Sunja discovers she is pregnant — and that Hansu is married with three children of his own. Crushed, Sunja dismisses Hansu from her life and marries another man before moving to Japan. As years pass like the falling of sand through an hourglass, Sunja never forgets the handsome man she had first fallen in love with; but she also remains a dedicated wife and mother to her children. Through many trying decades and oftentimes seemingly insurmountable adversity, Sunja persists in a quest for more than just survival; rather, for the fullness and richness of a life well-lived.
Pachinko is an extraordinary family saga in the vein of Amy Tan’s many works, but set against a backdrop of WWII-era Japan and the postwar culture that continued to discriminate against those of Korean descent. I’ve read minimal works set in Japan (or even told from an Asian culture’s perspective) during the World War II years (and the years following), so I was fascinated by the narrative that Lee offered readers. I was especially surprised to discover the rampant and open racism and hostility that the Japanese displayed toward Koreans, which extended so far as to require Koreans to register for permission to stay in the country when they turned 14 and every 3 years following — even if they’d been born in Japan to begin with.
The novel is so much more than an examination of race or prejudice, though; Pachinko is a love song to women and, in particular, mothers. More than one matron’s dedication to her children is featured in this novel, which explores what it means to truly be a mother — and what it means to be family. I found so much to savor in the flowering of Sunja as she became a mother and defied cultural norms and traditional expectations. It was truly a treat to follow her lifetime throughout the course of the novel and I found myself crying sympathetically at many moments in the book.
The Good: Pachinko is a deeply moving, vivid family saga that provides insight to a different culture than is commonly found in contemporary literature. The characters are all developed so thoroughly that readers won’t be able to help becoming attached — and invested in their outcomes. The length of the novel, though perhaps a deterrent to some, ends up being a huge “pro” for the story, allowing multiple character storylines to play out and the plot to reach a satisfying and not-ridiculous or -rushed outcome.
The Bad: It’s not such a bad thing, per se, but the novel isn’t one that can be read absentmindedly. Pachinko is a demanding work that requires both time and devout attention. I do wish that Haruki’s storyline would have been drawn to some sort of conclusion, but I recognize that he wasn’t a major character and the cliff Lee leaves us at is a concession I’m willing to make.
The Verdict: 5 stars. This is a stellar, impressive work for those who are fans of Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini or Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Although the novel is a bit lengthy, every glorious page matters.