Thursday 20 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Family drama
19th/20th century

Pachinko is a multigenerational saga about a family of Koreans in the early 20th century who have to move to Japan because Korea is occupied, the economy is tanking, and the best way to make a living is to emigrate to the land of their occupiers.

Initially, Sunja, the beloved daughter of two older parents (older in that they were early 20s when she was born in the early 20th century), gets pregnant out of wedlock. Her lover, she discovers after it’s too late, already has a wife in Japan. Sunja, who has her pride, has zero intention of being his mistress and sends him on his way. One of the boarders at her parents’ boardinghouse, a preacher with tuberculosis and who is traveling to his new church, offers to marry her and raise her child as his own. She accepts and goes with him to make a new life in Japan.  Together, they raise their sons in Japan and the story follows four generations of their family, navigating through wars, cultural upheaval, and constantly being viewed as outsiders. Throughout, they are haunted by shadows of their past that they cannot outrun, for better or worse.

It’s been a really interesting read, though I am discovering that I’m apparently not generally a fan of multigenerational narratives. Not in a single book, anyway. This started out strong and then got rushed near the end, as though there are too many stories, too many characters, and too much to say to give attention to any one of them. I think doing multigenerational sagas over several books is a better way to go.

That said, this was an excellent read, especially the first half, and I learned a ton about Korean culture that I had no idea about before. I didn’t know so many Koreans had moved to Japan, nor that Japan had occupied Korea. My education failed me! The way some of the people felt like they had to “pass” as Japanese just to be allowed to live in peace and make a life for themselves was so sad.

Overall, I had my quibbles with it, but I thoroughly enjoyed Pachinko and would recommend it as an excellent and eye-opening read.

© Kristen McQuinn

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