Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pachinko alongside its fellow National Book Award finalist, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing took home the prize last year, but Pachinko has won my heart.

Is that too cheesy?

The novel follows the history of a Korean-Japanese immigrant family. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1910 and ends in Yokohama, a main port city of Japan neighboring Tokyo, in 1989. With the narration in omniscient third person, many characters, major and minor, contribute their voices to the telling of this story. The sprawling network of characters has a nucleus in Sunja, who is not so much a main character as a central one. It is her unexpected teenage pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the events of the book, and as she weathers the storms of life, she slowly transforms from a wide-eyed girl to an elderly matriarch of many sacrifices.

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The variety of perspectives reflects the research that Lee conducted while preparing it, which included interviews with numerous Korean-Japanese people. She has also expressed her desire to tell the stories of “minor” players in history, such as minorities, women, and the working class, and so the ensemble cast includes all of these. About her narration, Lee has said, “above all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” This even-handedness lends the book an interesting realism when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of the characters — after all, everyone can justify their actions within the safety of their own minds, no matter how unreasonable those actions may seem to other people.

A major thread that runs through the narrative is Christianity: the characters’ relationship to it or lack thereof. Sunja’s husband, Isak, is a Presbyterian minister, and their marriage contains parallels to the book of Hosea. When the imperial Japanese government cracks down on Christianity, there are nods to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Although Isak is an exemplar of Christian love, faith, and humility, other characters have more complicated religious viewpoints and struggle with the idea of God. Sunja, for example, wonders whether she will see her father in heaven and feels attached to the ancestral traditions of her upbringing.

The male characters of the family line, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, each have their own burdens to bear, and even having biblical names can be a struggle in a country where they are extremely uncommon. There is a push and pull in how each character lives up to, runs away from, or simply ignores his name. These names are badges of both their Christian upbringings and their foreignness, and some of the characters wish to break away from both of those things. The politics in a name are even more evident as each Korean is required to take on a legal Japanese name. As the younger generations become more and more Japanese, they more often choose to pass as native Japanese to avoid discrimination, although their legal statuses remain as foreigners. Outside of the context of the book, Korean-Japanese people are still not considered full Japanese citizens today.

The game that gives the book its name, pachinko, does not come into play until midway through the book, when Mozasu gets a job at a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a type of pinball/slot-machine game that sidesteps Japan’s anti-gambling laws by offering prizes that can be exchanged for cash. Historically, it has been affiliated with yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. It’s also one of the only industries where early Korean immigrants could get a leg in, owing to widespread discrimination.

While pachinko plays a role in the livelihood of Sunja’s family, it also serves as an extended metaphor for life itself, and particularly the chances taken by immigrant families as they build their lives in new countries. Some of the Korean characters work in pachinko, but none of them play it. Instead, they play the game of life. This connection becomes explicit in the story of one of my favorite characters, Etsuko: “[She] had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Being a family history, Pachinko necessarily reflects on parenthood and on connection and disconnection between generations. The plot flows so gradually through time that changes in technology and cultural norms can catch the reader by surprise, and characters that once seemed full of life transform into two-dimensional cutouts in the eyes of their descendants. The effect is to follow a trajectory opposite of most novels — in the end, when their adventures are over, some of the characters seem less than they were in the beginning, even when we know that they must be more. Most novels, of course, don’t follow characters past the end of their own stories, and in stopping there, they leave them frozen in states of self-realization in the mind of the reader. Not so in Pachinko nor in life — the waters of time must flow onward.

The characters of Pachinko struggle to bridge the generational gap between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children don’t respect the sacrifices they have made for them, and children run relentlessly toward the future, determined to blaze their own paths. Heartbreakingly, it is the mothers who often suffer the most in these situations: Yangjin, Sunja, and Etsuko all experience some kind of abandonment from their children. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” they repeat time and time again. The tragedy of their familial discord is a powerful reminder to love and respect the parental figures in your life.

Pachinko is a complex and lovingly crafted novel that clocks in at nearly five hundred pages long. Min Jin Lee clearly put in the work to make it as historically accurate as possible, and the details buoy the story, giving life to the various settings while refraining from over-exposition. It has the fire and pluck of an adventure novel, the emotional tension of a family drama, and the scope of an epic. I recommend it to anyone looking to get invested in a book with substance. This is a truly great modern novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

Buy Pachinko here!

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