For the February Book of the Month, I selected Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, since I am very interested in Korean history.
Pachinko is about a Korean family who move to Japan during the Colonial Period (1910-45), when Japan colonized Korea. We start out with Sunja, a young girl living in a small village in the early part of the Colonial Period. She gets pregnant, yet the father cannot marry her. However, a young pastor agrees to marry her if she will move with him to Japan. Sunja agreees, and the rest of the novel tells the story of her family, with a focus on Sunja and her children.
Koreans faced many hardships under Japanese rule, and Lee does an admirable job creating a realistic and detailed setting and story for Sunja and her family. As they live in Japan longer, and have children who have only known Japan as their home, and not Korea, interesting questions are brought up about one’s loyalty to their country, and which they consider as their home. This was, and still is, a common ethical question, and the story Lee creates allowed me to consider various points of view, while simultaneously challenging my own. I hope that Pachinko will create more interest in Korean history and the hardships the Korean people have faced, especially during the 20th century.
Besides well-researched historical details, Lee’s writing keeps the story going at a good pace, even across the 400+ page length of the book. The plot never slowed down, and her writing kept me reading. While setting a good pace, Lee also creates characters whose stories grab our interest, and whose perspectives give us a lot to think about. We meet characters who are vested in a more traditional mindset, who are contrasted with younger characters who have a more open mindset about certain topics. We also see areas where these characters overlap, and its interesting to witness the fluidity of certain perspectives.
Lee weaves stories of different members of the family together, starting with Sunja’s parents and slowly cycling down to Sunja’s children. As the book progresses, the time jumps between chapters increased, and while this helps to push the story forward, I felt that it was somewhat sudden and slightly confusing when reading from chapter to chapter.
The time jumps, and rapid introduction of characters in the last third of the book weaken the ending. New characters are introduced as we learn more about Sunja’s children and their lives and families. While this adds depth to the story, it is hard to completely flesh out the character’s stories in such a short period of time. A lot of characters seemed thrown in simply to add detail and depth to a main character’s life, without giving enough depth to the new character. I think if Lee had lengthened the book to allow more space for new characters to grow and mold into the story would have helped create a smoother ending. I felt that there was still more of the story to be told by the time I finished, and I found the ending rather abrupt.
Even with a stumbling ending, the characters and story in Pachinko force us to think about tolerance, and this message is especially relevant today as many Western countries are attempting to close their borders to immigrants from certain countries (cough USA cough). The idea that Koreans were worthless and would contaminate Japanese society is similar to some contemporary perspectives regarding immigrants. Pachinko offers us a glimpse into a different side of 20th century imperialism that we don’t often see in Western literature, and can hopefully educate us about the mistakes of our past, so we do not repeat them.