Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

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Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Publication Date: February 7th, 2017

Page Count: 496 (Hardcover)

From the Jacket: In this gorgeous, page-turning saga, four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan, exiled from a home they never knew.

“There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

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Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

Pachinko follows several generations of a Korean family after they have fled to Japan because of circumstance and war. The story opens in a boardinghouse in Korea where we meet Hoonie and Yanglin. A marriage is arranged between them, and together, they have Sunja. It is Sunja’s story that takes us from Korea to Japan, after an unplanned pregnancy with a married man threatens to bring great shame on her family.  The consequences of that choice, for Sunja and her children and grandchildren ripple throughout the rest of the book.

In Pachinko, Lee writes of familial love and sacrifice, war and prejudice, perseverance and bravery. Much of the book centers around the female characters and their roles in providing for their families and the strong relationships they develop with one another. She seems to effortlessly weave personal and political details, making every aspect of the book accessible and engaging. She writes about the Pachinko business and what a large role it played in Korean livelihood. She writes about the discrimination the Koreans face at the hands of the Japanese, the repercussions of which continue to impact families for several generations.

One of the first things to strike me about Pachinko was Lee’s writing style. It is simple and sparse and straightforward, but nothing ever feels lacking. She used the same voice whether writing about the most mundane details of a sitting room or describing the death of a character. And as a reader, I was equally enthralled throughout. I found myself relishing in her descriptions of the boarding house where the story begins. She’s also an incredibly efficient storyteller, allowing no detail to go to waste. After just a few chapters I started looking forward to each new detail she added because I couldn’t wait to see how she weaved it in to the larger tapestry of the story.

At the end of this book, Lee includes a lengthy Author’s Note where she describes how she initially got the idea for Pachinko in 1989 and has been working on some iteration of it ever since.

Just let that sink in.

Almost thirty years to create this work, and all I can say after reading it, is yes. Yes, I can absolutely understand how this incredible book took almost 30 years to craft. Yes, I can see the dedication, time, and love in even the smallest details. Yes, this book is absolute perfection. And not only did I enjoy the hell out of it, but I learned so much about a part of history that I had no previous knowledge of. I cannot recommend this enough and I hope I do not have to wait 30 more years for her next book. But if I do, I have no doubt that it will be worth it.

Rating: Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 12.20.19 AM

(And I’ve added it to my list of top all-time favorites.)

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