Book Review – Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published: February 7th 2017 by Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Historical fiction, cultural – Korea/Japan
Pages: 496

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

This is one of those books that bites over a lot, but the bites are small and many and therefore manageable. It takes patience and understanding, but if you have that, you will read a beautiful family saga about taking chances while playing it safe, about tenacity and giving up, about pride and shame, love and hate. You’ll learn about the complex relationship between Korea and Japan, and you’ll see what it’s like to live with mixed blood. Being multicultural myself, this one hit home for me.

“Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.” 

Pachinko is a popular game in Japan reminiscent of pinball with trying to get the little ball into little pockets for payout. In many ways it’s 50% luck and 50% work, but the parlors used to tweak the pins to limit the payouts. This is a marvelous metaphor for the Koreans trying to succeed in Japan in the early 1900s, half and half luck and work with obstacles being added over night.

The book follows Sunja who we meet as a teenager living with her parents and struggling to keep afloat when she meets a rich traveller and falls in love. She learns that she is pregnant and that the father is already married. In an act of dignity and safety for her future she marries a crippled minister and moves with him to Japan. This will forever change the course of her life, and every life that comes after her. 

The story flows easier in the beginning when we only follow Sunja, as the trunk of the tree and it gets more diluted towards the end as we move out in the branches of her children and their families as we get more people to follow along the way. But I loved that I got to see history unfold and always come back to Sunja as a reminder of where we started.

“We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.” 

The story of Sunja and her family tree may not be a true one, but the stories in this book  rings very true for many Koreans of that time, as well as the conditions they lived in and worse. And being in Korea while reading this book, I saw signs of a people still hurting from history. It’s a reminder of how our choices can echo through the times.