One year ago, Min Jin Lee released her sweeping novel, Pachinko, which quickly became a bestseller and earned accolades. It captured my interest, and I finally picked up the book a few weeks ago. After finishing the final chapters today, I can say it fully lived up to the hype. Pachinko is a beautiful epic, following four generations of a Korean family through some of the darkest times in recent history.
The novel opens with a bang: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Indeed, as the unfolding story will show, so much of our own history has condemned people to suffering, and yet we grapple through it and make the most of the unlucky hand we’ve been dealt.
Pachinko starts off in the fishing village of Yeongdo, South Korea in 1910 – a time when Korea was still one unified country. That was the year that Japan annexed Korea; a year later, a man named Hoonie was matched with a young woman named Yangjin, and they married. Much of the novel follows their daughter, Sunja, her story developing in the early 1930s. She gets caught up in a love affair with an older man, and when she falls pregnant, she has few options before her secret destroys her family’s name. So she marries a young Christian minister named Baek Isak. Together, they travel to Osaka, Japan, living with Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee.
In Japan, Koreans are treated poorly and with racism by the Japanese. The family lives in small ghetto, and jobs are hard to come by. But unable to live on Yoseb’s salary alone, the two wives set out to work. Sunja gives birth to her son Noa, then later to a son conceived with Isak, named Mozasu.
As the years pass, the story begins to follow Noa and Mozasu as they grow into adults, and eventually, Mozasu’s son, Solomon. Each generation faces different struggles, opportunities, and realities. But even as their family’s circumstances improve, some traumas run deep and lead to devastating turns.
By the time Pachinko ends in 1989, the youngest generations inhabit a very different world from their parents and grandparents. Even so, the past is still with them, accepted but never forgotten.
Pachinko is a stunning novel that is at once epic and intimate. Although it covers four generations and spans 80 years, nothing ever feels rushed or glossed over. Each generation and each character gets enough time that they become a full person, coming to life on the pages. At nearly 500 pages, Min Jin Lee gave each character the time and care they needed to make an impact in this novel.
As I read it, I truly felt for each character. I became fully absorbed in their story, and when they grew older and faded out, it felt like a sad loss. But at the same time, the next generation gaining a more important presence was also welcome and exciting. This is the mark of relatable and lovable characters who leave an imprint on the reader.
Although it spans 500 pages and 80 years of time, Pachinko never feels like it drags. It never feels disconnected. The author’s writing is sharp and quick when it needs to be, yet also profound and nurturing. It makes each page meaningful, and the novel is enjoyable and engrossing through the very end.
But one thing must be said: Pachinko deals with some heavy topics. Dislocation, a country torn apart, racism, poverty, mental illness, shame, early deaths. There’s a lot of sadness and strife here, and I cried several times during my reading. Even so, Pachinko isn’t wholly depressing; there’s plenty of warmth and happiness here, too. But it’s these highs that make the lows all the more heartbreaking.
Beyond the deft writing and characterization, Pachinko also offers another undeniable benefit, at least for me: It’s quite educational. I have to admit that in the middle and high schools I attended, almost no time was spent on foreign history or politics. It was nearly entirely US-focused, year in and year out. As such, I knew nothing about Japan’s occupation of Korea. I didn’t know Korea’s history of breaking into two separate countries. My education was lacking, and in college, I never took the right classes to learn Asian history or culture.
This is part of why I love reading so much. Nonfiction, of course, is an ideal source for knowledge. But there’s something to be said for how much one can learn from reading fiction. When I picked up Pachinko, I wasn’t specifically seeking out information on Korean and Japanese history, but I’m so glad I got it. Novels can do so much to expand your horizons and increase your awareness of different peoples, places, and times. For me, Pachinko was eye-opening, and a gateway for me to learn more about Asian history.
Pachinko is a powerful, heartbreaking, and transformative novel. This is one of those memorable books that will stay with you, that you’ll recommend to others, and that you’ll surely revisit in the future. It’s only March, but I’m already anticipating this to be one of my favorite books of this year.