All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

on February 15, 2017

Min Jin Lee
2017, 485p
Copy courtesy of Harper Collins AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Yeongdo, Korea 1911.

In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Every now and then you read a book which serves to remind you how little you truly know about something and for me, Pachinko was one of those books. I know next to nothing about Korean history and little about their culture as well. I haven’t read many books set in Korea or by Korean authors. This was a chance to learn a little about both in a multi-generational story that takes in Korea’s annexation by Japan, the devastating Second World War and the split of Korea thereafter into North and South Korea.

Sunja is just a teenager when she falls pregnant to a married man almost twice her age. Although he offers to house her and provide for her as his “Korean” wife, Sunja had no idea that he was already married and is insulted and offended, refusing his offer. Fearing ruin, she is surprised when one of the lodgers at her mother’s boardinghouse, a young Christian missionary named Baek Isak offers to marry her. He believes that things happen for a reason and it is Gods will that he show Sunja kindness, offer her a good life and save her from ruin. A sickly child, Baek Isak unexpectedly made it to adulthood and didn’t expect he would ever marry. He still feels that he will leave Sunja a young widow but this would be preferable to ostracism. The young couple move to Japan where Isak’s brother works in a factory.

What follows is a life of struggle in many ways. Money is always scarce and Sunja soon learns that Koreans are horribly looked down upon in Japan. All the bosses are Japanese, all the landlords are Japanese. If Isak’s brother and his wife hadn’t been able to purchase a tiny property, they would never have been able to find somewhere to rent as no one will rent to Koreans. Where they live is almost like a slum area, people crammed in together in high numbers but in small spaces. As things worse, Sunja and her sister-in-law are offered a surprising lifeline. This means defying Isak’s brother and going out to work but he is forced to swallow his pride and allow it in order for the family to live.

Sunja’s two children are very different, with her eldest being very bright and studious and her younger shunning learning and finding himself headed down a path for trouble in his teens before he is rescued and put to work for a man who owns numerous pachinko parlours (from what I could gather pachinko is kind of like a cross between an arcade game and a poker/slot machine). During their teens it seems as though the two boys could not be more different. The eldest is set for a prestigious college although securing the funding for the tuition might lead to selling his soul. The youngest who leaves school early, surprises by rising up the ranks rapidly and showing a real aptitude for the business. As the years roll by, the lives of the brothers diverge and then come back together in the most surprising of ways.

I had very little idea of the racism that existed in Japan towards the thousands of Koreans who ended up there either just before the war, searching for opportunities denied to them in an impoverished homeland, or because of the war. Sunja’s children are faced with mockery and bullying, the only way to survive is to be as Japanese as possible. Even faking it, changing their names to ones that sound Japanese and not Korean, speaking faultless Japanese, etc. There are jobs that Koreans would never be hired for simply for being Korean-born. Or even just having Korean parents.

This is quite a long book, almost 500p and covers 4 generations. It was the sort of book that for me, required slow and thoughtful reading so that I could take in as much as possible about the life and habits of the characters and not miss anything. Sunja is a tireless workhorse, as is her sister-in-law. Despite not meeting until when she and Isak arrive in Japan the two women forge a relationship that is perhaps closer than that of sisters. They are working constantly and when they are not working they are tending those that need it – injured husbands, dying relatives, etc. Because this is also a book that is underscored in tragedy. No matter the generation. I don’t think there is anyone in here who doesn’t experience terrible loss and cripplingly difficult times. There is poverty, war, disease, imprisonment, depression and fear but underneath all that is a determination to keep on going. To stoically accept these things and just…..keep going.

I found this book so interesting, it was the sort of book that it was so easy to become fully immersed in the lives of these people, their ups and downs, the dark tragedies and horrible sacrifices. But along with all of that, there was a lot of love and devotion, although perhaps not expressed demonstrably, as seemed to be the way. There are numerous mentions of not “spoiling” children with praise and affection (several characters break this rule but even when they do, their displays are very low key). It is a quiet sort of love, hidden inside but nurtured fully.


Book #27 of 2017



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