Koreans in Japan search for success in Lee’s sumptuous sophomore novel
Reviewed by: Julienne Isaacs
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko could be called a sweeping family drama. It effortlessly carries the reader through generations, outlining its changing historical context without sacrificing the juicy details.
The novel is the Korean-American author’s second, after 2007’s bestselling Free Food for Millionaires, which focused on the Korean immigrant experience in America. Some of Pachinko’s many Korean protagonists gesture at emigrating to the U.S., but none do: Pachinko stays anchored closer to home.
For readers unfamiliar with Korean history, Pachinko offers an enjoyable primer. The novel begins in 1910 in a small fishing village in the south where Sunja, the much-beloved only daughter of a local innkeeper, is seduced by an older man and (shamefully) becomes pregnant. Sunja is “rescued” by a tubercular, northern Korean missionary named Isak, who marries her and whisks her off to Osaka, Japan.
Most of the story’s subsequent action takes place in Japan through the difficult years of the Depression and the Second World War, and the beginnings of prosperity in the second half of the century.
Lee is enormously skilled at enfleshing the bones of history: Sunja’s family members and friends are each given life in a few strokes. Though the cast of characters is large, it does not feel overwhelming. Sensual details about food and homes, clothing and money, neighbourhoods and livelihoods are lavishly provided. The reader will quickly traverse Pachinko’s vast scope but feel unhurried on the journey.
At its core, Pachinko is a narrative about success. The novel’s name comes from a Japanese arcade game used for gambling, in which the player attempts to navigate a series of pins and capture little steel balls that can be exchanged for valuable prizes. In Lee’s novel the game isn’t used only as a metaphor: some of the Korean characters work in pachinko parlours. But for them, success is a haunting, elusive dream.
Following Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Korean immigrants faced incredible difficulties in Japan due to racial discrimination. Even the wealthiest of migrants were forced to live in slums and denied health insurance and good jobs. All migrants — and their descendants, including those born and raised in Japan — were required to register as Korean residents in Japan.
But when Sunja and Isak arrive in Japan, they are hopeful: “Yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness. The Japanese could think what they wanted about them, but none of it would matter if they survived and succeeded.”
There is strength in numbers, they reason: if the family can grow, it will ultimately thrive.
It does grow, but Sunja remains Pachinko’s heart. Some of the novel’s most compelling ideas emit not from its historical roots but its emotional ones; the notion of motherhood offers the story a complex mythos. Sunja’s connection to her children is primal, but rife with suffering, or “go-saeng,” when misfortune befalls them:
“Go-saeng — the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?… Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water?… Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?”
In many ways Pachinko’s women suffer more than its men: the latter might be tortured by discrimination, but the resulting suffering is theirs only. The women carry their own suffering as well as that of their children, in ever-expanding generational rings.
But readers won’t carry suffering too heavily, because Lee doesn’t — she lets it fall into context, then proceeds. Life is dynamic: in Pachinko, it carries on, rich and wondrous.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.