Spanning 4 Generations of 1 Family, But Represents Everyone
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee,a hymn to the struggles of being human
Have you ever read a book that left you breathless? When you think about the book you get warm goosebumps all over. Pachinko is one such book for me.
The book starts off in Korea- a small picturesque fishing village of Yeongdo. The author expertly introduces us to a fisherman’s family Hoonie and Yangjin and his modest boarding lodge. I use the word “expertly” as she does not go into too many details about this family so that the reader is attached just enough. She then weaves us through their lives and hardships, sprinkling heartfelt meaningful humor throughout.
Sunja, their daughter, is the central focus. She has a sturdy build, is responsible, and sharp. I rooted for her from the very first page. She doesn’t say much, but she has a fiery personality when needed. Koh Bansu, a wealthy yakuza, twice her age, promises to give her and her family a better life and we follow their short-lived forbidden romance.
A striking feature of this novel is the author’s ability to describe the character’s physical appearances, a common thread throughout the book. Using phrases like “small, broken capillaries lay beneath his skin”, enables one to imagine the human being’s features vividly. “Her manga-pretty face with small pink lips covered in strawberry gloss,” is one of my particular favorites. It is intentionally and deliberately done, especially to describe women. This is a parallel to the lives women lead today. Some are obsessed with their looks and place almost all their self-worth on them.
After Yangjin finds out about Sunja’s impregnation, she is in deep sorrow and confesses to Isak, a young sickly pastor living in Yangjin’s modest lodge until he is healthy enough to travel to Osaka. Whilst she questions God, Isak replies with one of the most profound quotes:
“But a God that did everything we thought was right and good wouldn’t be the creator of the Universe. He would be our puppet.”
From then, Isak embarks on his journey with Sunja by his side to Osaka where they ultimately lead a life of hardship, suffering, and love. They live with Isak’s brother Yoseb and his beautiful wife Khyunghee. A tightly-knit Korean family struggling to live in Japan. From there starts the journey of 4 distinctly different generations.
Without going into too many details I urge everyone read this book, it sat with me for days after I finished reading the last word. The book was relatable in many aspects. Of course, the hardships of being a Korean in Japan are deeply resonant in the book and I will never know the meaning of being a foreigner in another land, but the ideals of relationships, racism, money, success, sex and family reverberate ubiquitously. I felt I was a part of their family, watching the generations go by, seeing destitute conditions to the glorious wealth of Dior bags. The shifts of happiness in poverty, and unhappiness in luxury.
My favorite character in the book is Sunja. Not because I introduced her in the beginning, but she was so thoughtfully conceived. The author interviewed many Korean-Japanese men and women, a great many of them mentioning a first-generation matriarch who sacrificed much of her life for the next. The book ends with her as well, surviving the loss of loved ones, enduring arduous hardships, the desire for human touch. She may seem to be a distant character, who chooses not to say much, but she is one I felt the most connected to. Her human thoughts, meticulousness, rumination, inner battles, speak so much of what it is to be imperfect, flawed. To be human is to have the power of resilience.
“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”
The novel is by no means bereft of flaws as some pivotal characters were abruptly cut off at sharp turns. The to-the-point prose was easy to understand, but for some may come across as artless without nuance.
As a reader, I enjoy writing styles that are clear without being too philosophically driven. The multi-cultural diversity and familial bonds left me seeking more after each short chapter.
I highly recommend this one. I am someone who reads Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and Brent Weeks. It was refreshing, emotional, and more than anything a punchy quick-read. This book is definitely 4.75 on 5 stars for me.