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Financial Times (Book Review)


By Arifa Akbar


It took the Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee almost 30 years to bring Pachinko to life. The idea to write about the Korean immigrant experience in Japan first came to her in 1989. Lee did her research, and even completed a draft, before turning instead to the experience of Korean immigrants in America in her celebrated debut, Free Food for Millionaires (2007). She returned to the project over the years but, as she says in the book’s acknowledgments, “it did not feel right”. Sample the FT’s top stories for a week You select the topic, we deliver the news. Select topic Enter email addressInvalid email Sign up By signing up you confirm that you have read and agree to the terms and conditions, cookie policy and privacy policy. After such a long gestation, the finished product — a doorstop historical saga that spans four generations of one family — wears its labours lightly. The story begins with, and always returns to, the life of Sunja, the adored only daughter of a Korean couple from a fishing village. We follow her from an early failed love affair to her marriage to Isak, a Christian pastor, and their journey from occupied Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they meet the full force of colonial prejudice. As one character tells Isak: “No one will rent to the Koreans. As pastor, you’ll get a chance to see how the Koreans live here. You can’t imagine: a dozen in a room that should be for two, men and families sleeping in shifts. Pigs and chickens inside homes. No running water. No heat. The Japanese think Koreans are filthy . . . ” The story that follows is a deeply wrenching one of migration, circling around themes of in-between identities, belonging and acceptance. The latter is never granted for Sunja’s family: the Korean in Japan remains a perpetual outsider in Pachinko. Personal stories coalesce with national histories. We are shown the effects of Japan’s occupation of Korea (which began in 1910) through Sunja’s experiences, and the after-effects of the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 via her brother-in-law’s horrifying injuries, and so on until 1989. We never feel history being spoon-fed to us: it is wholly absorbed into character and story, which is no mean feat for a novel covering almost a century of history. Family members endure homelessness, poverty, disease, suicide, sudden death and imprisonment without trial, among other ordeals. Their suffering marks them indelibly but their status as victims is mitigated by a resourceful, everyday heroism. Lee’s exploration of the immigrant experience highlights different kinds of trauma, including that which is passed down the generations — from Sunja to her sons, Noa and Mozasu, and grandson, Solomon. While Mozasu rebels against the expectation to be a pliant, obedient “good Korean”, Noa lives behind a carefully composed façade of “Japaneseness” to survive in his hostile environment. Solomon, meanwhile, is distanced from anti-Korean prejudice by his father’s wealth and an American education, but despite his privilege he must still negotiate questions of identity. Lee’s portrait of an immigrant who begins with nothing but thrives against all the odds is at once particular and universal. The arc of Sunja’s journey is not unlike that traced by Sunjeev Sahota in his Man Booker-nominated The Year of the Runaways (2015), which tells the story of Indian immigrants to Britain who survive abject beginnings to eventually live in relative comfort. When Sunja looks back at her life, she is almost unable to draw a line from her early poverty to her eventual wealth (both her sons make their fortunes through running the titular “pachinko”, a type of Japanese pinball bar). Pachinko tells many people’s stories and deftly brings its large ensemble of characters alive. Occasionally the plot is jarred by too-neat twists, such as the convenient return of Sunja’s lover, announced on the same page as the death of her husband. The biggest off-note, though, is Lee’s treatment of Noa, who is abruptly discarded in a sudden death, his children’s stories left dangling. His is one of many untimely deaths of fathers and mothers: there is no nuclear family in Lee’s world, and a recurrence of dead spouses and single parents. It seems as if the novelist is showing us how migration can fracture a family far beyond a single generation. Despite the many tragedies, romance and love still flourish in Pachinko, and surrogate parents are found in aunts, uncles and grandparents. The final image is a vivid one of Sunja as an elderly woman. She is standing over her husband’s grave, reflecting on her losses but still standing, Lee seems to be saying, like a true survivor.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, Apollo, RRP£18.99/Grand Central Publishing, RRP$27, 496 pages

published: Financial Times by Arifa Akbar