Book Review by Annie Clay of The Grove Bookshop: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, published in hardback by Apollo at £18.99
PACHINKO, the new novel by South Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, follows several generations of a Korean family during the course of the twentieth century - through all the happiness and hardships that come with life, and the struggles of being a Korean immigrant in Imperial Japan. Opening in 1910 with events that lead to the birth of Sunja, the leading protagonist, it takes us all the way through to the late 1980s, with Sunja’s family having been through trials that no family should have to go through - and yet, that families everywhere do.
When, as a young girl working in her widowed mother’s boarding house, Sunja discovers she is unable to marry the rich fish broker whose baby she is carrying, she is convinced she has brought shame upon her family. Yet a kindly, frail, Presbyterian minister from Pyongyang, Isak Baek, intervenes and offers to take her to Japan as his wife. As they move in with Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee in the Korean ghetto in Osaka, Sunja experiences the ordeals that come with living in a country in which she is not welcome. Gender roles are tested as Sunja and Kyunghee fight Yoseb to be allowed to work; even when they succeed, there are tribulations along the way and they are never made to feel fully comfortable in their new role. “A woman’s lot is to suffer” is an idea they sadly come to accept, after struggling to keep their family surviving together.
Their experience as arrivals in a new country is equally tense, as the family experiences widespread prejudice against immigrants. The Koreans are characterised by the Japanese as “natural troublemakers” from a “cunning and wily tribe”. With Korea annexed by Japan from 1910-1945, the tensions between the two countries - and indeed, tensions in the rest of the world - make life unpredictable and often dangerous. Even after Japan’s defeat, Koreans continued to be oppressed and excluded from Japanese society, yet the post-WWII fighting in Korea leaves the family unable to go home; in the words of one Korean character, “for people like us, home doesn’t exist”.
Going into this book with no knowledge of the history of Japan or Korea, I was expecting to feel slightly overwhelmed with a plot to follow on top of becoming familiar with new cultures. Yet Min Jin Lee performs her job so well that the characters feel like family and cultural explanations never overwhelm the plot - in fact, it’s hardly noticeable at all that you’re getting an in-depth education on East Asian history. Pachinko effectively tells a universal story, while Lee’s exhaustive research on the Korea-Japan relationship of the time lends a hugely fascinating and informative tone to the novel. The characters are likeable even when we know they shouldn’t be, and both the plot and wider world events are remarkably easy to follow for such a large and sweeping novel. There are horrors that will bring tears to your eyes, but the beautiful, overwhelming tone of the novel – and the one that will stay with you at the end - is one of hope, courage, and survival against all the odds.