Pachinko – A historical fiction and a family saga that started with a tainted love in the difficult times in Korea. With backdrop of war, constant intrinsic racism and personal battles, the story is narrated through eyes of different, multi-generational characters, each with a role in weaving the texture of the story.
The book introduces a family in Korean village – of a handicapped fisherman and his wife who ran a boardinghouse. The simple daughter, Sunja falls victim to a rich businessman and becomes pregnant. While the plight is unintentionally brought upon herself in innocence, her strength becomes evident when she refuses to be the mistress of the married man. Isak, one of the boarders saves her from humiliation and proposes to marry. She accepts the proposal on Isak’s request to become a Christian and at personal level, at the cost of leaving her mother and village forever. The new life brings its own challenges in the war-stricken Korea and later in Japan. She finds love with her husband and her own resilience that time brings and the games history plays with her. She discovers the motherly bond with her two sons, a friend in her sister in law and the story goes on to the next three generations.
Lee’s writing style is convincing and accommodating. Right from the beginning the writer walks with the reader to the places with people she has created. The pacing in the story is very good with right amount of surprises, sad and beautiful story twists and turns. Pachinko – the name does not appear (and that too en passant) towards middle of the book, a nice literacy twist. The game signifies and symbolizes the Koreans in Japan, the story of this family and many others of Korean descent in Japan who were associated with these parlors (not in a good, respectable way) – people who could not speak their own language, could not obtain Japanese passports and needed co-signers to buy homes.
What I loved most about this book was aspects of the past of that region that are unknown to maybe many in audience, including me. Lee did a great job in stringing the beautiful story in that time of history. She does this skillfully and continues to keep a balance that is needed (and appreciated as a reader) between fiction and facts, inserting just enough interstitial information about political conditions of the time to still be aware of the characters. Her main characters were crafted expertly and given a “life”, fighting at various fronts – picking choosing their internal and external battles at different times. Surrounded by war or blessed with a time of peace, the fights with one’s own self are constant and real; one may overcome external oppression, push aside judgements from other humans and races but making peace with one’s own self surpasses all battles to the point that war and its calamities become a secondary complication. The magnificent mix of Lee’s sometimes merely simple and other times brilliantly complex characters fill this book with tender and cruel intricacies that life brings us – irrespective of birth, time or situation. One of my favorite quotes, which is contextual but nonetheless strong is, “Is it so terrible to be Korean?”, “It is terrible to be me.”
Sunja’s character was one of my favorite – apparently mild, almost mute but a fiercely resilient and strong woman who while submitting to the traditions, cultural boundaries and male-dominance demonstrated a strength and respect-winning grace, without making a big deal of her ego. Depending upon what she wanted, quietly, surefootedly she pursued what was right for her and her sons. Her sister in law, Kayunge gives her kind emotional support throughout. “In a way, the two women tried to obey Yoseb in their disobedience…”.
I did not dislike any character because as an expert writer, the portrayal of each was done beautifully- they behaved as people do when they are good or bad. My only slight disagreement with book was the last few parts which sort of took the focus away from main characters and events and somehow impacted the ending too. In its own regard, the book concluded fine – an open end, just like life, with questions, regrets and longings. The conclusion did not disappoint me but on my way to it, the story became a little tortuous and winding. At a time when a book this (fair) size is coming to an end, each member of the story becomes important and their mention builds an anticipation in the readers’ mind on how this would impact the rest of the story or other characters. This did not happen for some of the people Lee brought in. She introduced Soloman’s boss and his girlfriend for very brief time and their presence satisfied their roles but characters like Haruki and his wife did not really bring much to the plot, in my opinion.
With many redeemable qualities, this is overall a very engaging and emotional read, with characters who will stay in your memory. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads because they don’t have 4.75 ratings but that would be my rating for this book. I would highly recommend this book to those who like to read fiction about history and generations, and also to those who absorb themselves in reading and are not looking for a quick read. This will be a treasure in my library and I already have her another of her book, Free Food for Millionaires, in my cart!
Just like any book filled with great writing, Pachinko has beautiful quotes including some (but not limited to) below: