Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko parlor in Nara, Japan

The sign of a good book is feeling bereft at the end. After finishing Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017), I spent days picking up new books and putting them down. I kept thinking about Lee's captivating characters and missing them as much as real people. This brilliant historical novel shows the plight of Koreans under colonial rule and as immigrants in Japan. By focusing on one peasant woman, Sunja, and her family from 1910 to 1989, history segways to near contemporary times and comes to life.

Under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Koreans endured poverty, hunger, and rape. Some immigrated to Japan to live in slums. Even after World War II freed Korea, the Koreans who remained in Japan were treated as a legal underclass. Desperate immigrants opened pachinko parlors; the game is similar to pinball but with movable pins and gambling. Some Korean Japanese became involved with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and other nefarious vocations, leading to more social stigma even toward those working in lawful industries. The most intriguing character in Pachinko was a morally ambiguous yakuza boss.

Although I studied Japan at college, I learned a lot from Min Jin Lee. The Korean American author spent 30 years writing and researching Pachinko. It has a marvelous sense of place and period without info dumping. Her engaging story shows how racism takes an emotional toll on its targets. I won't demean her characters by calling them victims because they work hard to assimilate and take pride in their accomplishments. All the characters were well developed and their stories were inspiring.

I loved Lee's vivid descriptions of landscapes and characters:
"As they approached the forest located on the opposite side of the island, the enormous pines, maples, and firs seemed to greet them, decked in golds and reds as if they were wearing their holiday clothes." 
"Her expression was one of a small child who had been disappointed by her birthday present."
Pachinko parlor in Okinawa (from my sabbatical in Japan)

I would strongly recommend Pachinko to everyone. The historical sections from 1910 to the early 1960s were perfectly crafted, but the more contemporary part read a bit like a prolonged epilogue with a message. Still, it was important to have the narrative stretch to more current times. My husband, who is a professor of Japanese politics, had a similar reaction, and my mother loved it too. We are still casting around for new books that will be as satisfying as Pachinko so I'm hoping to find one from the reviews linked to this post.

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@Barrie Summy

8 comments:

Powell River Books said...

Sounds like a good book for these times as well. I really don’t know much about Korea. In answer to your question, I left Ken “The Martin” better. I read it early in Weir’s self published career and way b3fore the movie. I liked Artemis but it just didn’t have as much of an impact on me. But I did like the fact that the main character was a young woman. - Margy

Jenn Jilks said...

It would probably be a good time to read about Korea, what with all that is going on, and the Olympics. It really helps to understand a people. This is why I read Fantasyland!

Barrie said...

How interesting that we both chose books about Korea this month! Well, Sarah, if you, your husband, your mother-in-law all kept thinking about the book and miss the characters, I'm sold. I have added it to my list. Thank you for reviewing!

Amanda Summer said...

I've never heard of Pachinko parlors - what a depth of history here. As Jenn said, this is a timely read with the Olympics starting tonight.

troutbirder said...

High praise indeed! I do know a bit about the Hermit Kingdom having taught both World Geography and World Religions to AP high school. A tragic history which continues in the North today..:(

A Cuban In London said...

Your first line is the reason why I read. It might seem strange that I want to be felt as if I need that very thing I just had but it's the reason why i go back to my bookshelf. Beautiful post.

Thanks.

Greetings from London.

cynthia said...

That's something when you miss the characters... And another beautiful cover. Learned lots just reading your review : )

thecuecard said...

Oh nice review Sarah. I haven't read Pachinko yet but I definitely plan to. Thanks for giving me the full background on it. I've heard a lot of great things about it.