Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published in 2017 by Apollo
Genre: historical fiction (adult)
Rating: 4/5 stars – would definitely recommend
A victorian epic transplanted to Japan, following a Korean family of immigrants through eight decades and four generations.
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.
I should have written this review months ago because I read Pachinko in May of this year, and loved it. Although I gave it 4/5 stars, it has become one of my most memorable reads so far. It’s one that will end up on a lot of favorites lists from now on: books that made me cry, emotional reads, favorite historical fiction books, and so on. It deserves a spot on all of those.
This story follows multiple generations of one family, as well as some of the people they encounter throughout their lives. We start the book off with Hoonie, who was born with a cleft palate and twisted foot. He is the only one of his siblings strong enough to survive. We get a quick overview of his life and marriage to Yangjin. Together they have a daughter called Sunja. She is pretty much the focus of this book. For the majority of the novel, we follow Sunja as she grows older. Aside from Sunja and her parents, we also follow her children, and grandchild.
As you can probably tell, this isn’t a fast-paced book filled with action scenes. It’s a character driven novel, and focuses far more on the people than the plot. I tend to love books that focus on the characters as I end up far more attached to them this way, so this novel was right up my alley.
There’s so much I loved about this story. It taught me quite a lot about Korea in the 20th century, as well as the annexation of the country by Japan and the treatment of Koreans who lived in Japan. Don’t worry, reading this book doesn’t feel like attending a history lecture. Instead, the nuggets of history are interwoven in the characters’ lives. It’s also very obvious that Korea and Japan (just like the rest of the world) were extremely sexist during those times. I’m not going to comment on the world and sexism today, because that’s a rant for another day. While I know that the sexism and troubles of woman are historically accurate, that doesn’t make it any easier to read.
The only downside of this book is that it can be so difficult to read because it’s incredibly sad. This novel is heartbreaking. I honestly felt like nothing good ever happened to this family, and was ready to leap into the book and rescue them all.
I grew so attached to Sunja. My heart still aches for her, months after finishing this book. She has such a tough life but she never gives up. She keeps going, so she can provide for her family as best she can. I honestly admire her, although I wouldn’t want her life at all. She just couldn’t catch a break!
I don’t know whether I can truly talk about the characters of this book, because it may be a bit of a spoiler? This is the kind of story you have to discover by yourself, and I don’t want to give too much away.
I will say that this book makes you empathize with the characters. The author manages to stir up such strong feelings in you as a reader. There were people I loved and wanted to protect and others I wanted to hurt.
All in all, this is a gorgeous novel about people making the best of terrible situations.
I genuinely don’t know how to convey my feelings on this book properly. I want everyone to read it, but I can’t properly express how I feel about it. If the premise sounds at all interesting to you, please give it a chance.