Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Hachette Book Group USA, 2017. Available as a library eBook through Axis360.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is an engrossing family saga along the lines of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. In other words, when you begin reading the novel, you are embarking on a long journey with a family, experiencing their joys and heartbreaks, triumphs and tragedies through the years.
Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family beginning in 1910, the year Japan forcefully annexed Korea, and runs through the 1980s. Sunja is born in Korea to poor but loving and enterprising parents, but tragedy soon strikes when her father dies. Her hardworking mother supports them by running a modest but successful boardinghouse in their small home. Sunja, though not beautiful herself, catches the affection of Hansu, a wealthy, charismatic Japanese businessman, and they begin an affair. When she becomes pregnant, Hansu reveals that he has a wife and family back in Japan, but he offers to set her and the baby up as his second family. Shocked at his revelation, Sunja refuses his offer, even though it would be an escape from poverty, and cuts ties with Hansu, though it will not be the last she sees of him.
Sweet, caring Isak comes into Sunja’s life, saving her from shame by marrying her, and they leave for Japan so he can do Christian mission work in Osaka. They move in with his brother and his wife, and Sunja soon develops a deep and loving relationship with her new family that will support her for many years to come and through life’s challenges, including more children, more tragedy, and an existence made difficult by cruel prejudice against Koreans in Japan, crippling poverty, and World War II.
Pachinko is about mere survival for some, and success for others. We see the sacrifices and hard choices some make to keep their children fed and safe. We see the fight to make a better life for oneself, and the opposing routes one can take, either through honest, hard work, or through crime and underground enterprise. And we see how, sometimes, the two routes merge together and compromises must be made for the benefit of following generations.
Min Jin Lee has written a novel with a plot that will carry you along through the years, carefully developed characters with lives worth investing your time and emotions, and enough depth to keep the reader thinking about the larger questions of life.
Katherine Arends is Branch Manager of the Mebane Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.