06 February 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Summary from Goodreads:
A new tour de force from the bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, for readers of The Kite Runner and Cutting for Stone.

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

I missed Lee's first book but I was really intrigued by the flap copy for Pachinko.  Fiction is a way for me to identify areas of history or the world I don't know much about - the history of Korea is definitely a blind spot.

Pachinko is the story of Sunja, a poor teenager in 1930s Korea just after the start of the Japanese occupation.  When she is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy Korean expatriate, she is left pregnant, a massive source of shame for her hardworking mother.  A young Presbyterian minister, Isak, offers to marry Sunja, give her baby a name, and take her with him to his new congregation in Osaka.  The novel continues to follow Sunja, her sons Noa and Mosazu, her brother-in-law Yosef and his wife Kyunghee, the growing circle of family and friends, and the yakuza Hansu, the man who set the saga in motion, as they survive living as second-class citizens of Japan in the twentieth-century.

This is a beautifully wrought family novel concentrating on the successes and tragedies of a single Korean family living in Osaka. Lee shows the reader in unflinching detail how poorly Koreans - even those born in Japan - are treated.  The Japanese people brutally repressed non-Japanese ethnic minorities and denied Koreans good jobs, equal pay, fair housing, equality under the law, respect, and citizenship (gee, I wonder who else that sounds like...).  There is a lot of concern about being one of the "good Koreans" rather than one of the "bad Koreans".  Also very interesting is the almost constant undercurrent of "should we go back to Korea?" Even though life in Japan is hard, with no guarantee of success, there is the constant pull of the homeland as Korea remained divided between North and South against an almost certain belief that none of them would have survived had they stayed in Korea through World War II and the Korean War.

Much of the later plot revolves around the economics of the pachinko parlors of Japan.  If you don't know much about pachinko the game, don't worry.  After I read the book, I had to look up how the game worked so I'll give you the capsule summary. Pachinko seems to be an amalgam of pinball and slots (kind of) and leans more on chance not skill; after the balls are shot into the machine they bounce down from pin to pin, the object being to get them into a small cup to win a payout.  So, fate.  And life for Sunja and her family in the novel resembles the pachinko balls, bouncing from one pin to another in search of a better life.

Pachinko comes out tomorrow, February 7, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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