This book is a great work of fiction, spanning over nearly 100 years and two countries. It begins in Korea, 1911 and by the end, we’ve reached Japan, 1989. But the author has blended the storylines very well and seamlessly taken the story along, so the change in characters and periods doesn’t seem abrupt at all. Since the book ranges across four generations of characters, it highlights how one’s history plays a huge role in a person’s life and how, as the phrase goes- has a tendency to repeat itself. It shows how a defining moment of one’s life continues to define and affect the actions of generations down the line.
The plot is centered around one Sunja, a woman born in a small town in Korea. It begins with her father, whose memory and wise words are remembered by her till the end of the book. Her grandparents ran a lodging house, which is passed down to her parents, whose story we are told too. That’s another thing I liked about the book- everyone’s story and point of view is told. In any situation, we read about what each person involved is thinking at that moment, even if it’s just a few lines. Anyway, Sunja spends the first sixteen years of her life at the lodging house until she marries a kind pastor, staying there, and goes with him to Japan.
The story then moves to the city of Osaka in Japan where Sunja stays with her brother and sister-in-law and her husband. We are then introduced to another dynamic and focus of the book which is the treatment of Korean immigrants in pre-WW2 Japan. I didn’t know this tension between the two regions existed and it was a saddening insight into what so many families must have faced.
We see how Sunja’s new family who were rich in Korea are made to live in a ghetto and work odd jobs in order to survive. Not only them, but she tells us about all the Koreans she knew in Japan who were reduced from riches to rags and who struggled to make ends meet. Every character faces some form of prosecution and discrimination at some point. But despite all they were facing, the family made the best of what they had and found a way to be happy.
At certain points in the book, it seemed like their situation was impossible and there was no way out, but somehow they survived, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. Of all things, the characters’ resilience and survival instinct was in my opinion, portrayed very well throughout the book. It was shown in various contexts and not only inspiring but well-thought-out as well.
The book ends on a sad note for most characters, but there is a ray of hope and an assurance given to us, letting us subtly know that the characters will be alright. As always, I loved reading about a new culture, a new history. Pachinko also passes the Bechdel test
Final thoughts- I didn’t realize the relation between the name of the book and the story until the last few chapters. Pachinko is a Japanese pinball game and a gambling business of sorts. Both of Sunja’s sons were involved in the pachinko business and it eventually becomes the family business. Many relations are made between the game of pachinko and the game of life in the book. So, I felt the name was a smart pick because, in a way, pachinko represents the life of Koreans in Japan and life in general as well!
Which other books with similar themes to Pachinko have you read?
Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.
~ Min Jin Lee, Pachinko.
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