The first word that comes to mind to describe Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is sprawling. I say that with utmost reverence for the word: nothing about the story Lee takes the reader on feels tedious or overblown as she leads us from the tiny Korean village of Yeongdo outside of Busan in 1883 all the way to Tokyo in 1989. Panchinko has many main characters, but the lynch pin is Sunja: she is the daughter of Yangjin, the owner of a lodging house. She becomes the wife of Baek Isak and the mother to his children. By the time the novel ends, we meet her grandchildren, all the while tracing her choices ripple down through the years. Sunja’s choices are certainly not easy ones to make. When she is only sixteen years old, she is doggedly pursed by a much old, wealthier fishbroker who leaves her with child. A minister, Baek Isak, happens to be staging in Yangjin’s lodging house, and with Yangjin confides her daughters plight to him, Baek Isak does the unthinkable: he asks Sunja to marry him.
Gulls hovered, shrieking loudly, then flew away. She realized that the marriage had a condition, but it was easy to accept it; there was no way for him to test her devotion. How do you prove that you love God? How do you prove that you love your husband? She would never betray him; she would work hard to care for him–this she could do.
Sunja accepts, but what choice does she have, really? Given the year is 1910, Baek Isak’s arrival would be nothing short of a deus ex machina if this was history and not fiction. And yet, although Sunja is spared from the devastating consequences of having a child out of wedlock, her life is certainly not easy. Her decision leads her to Japan, where she and Isak put down roots and grow their family. It is here that we watch four generations of a family struggle to find their place in a country and time that is heavily prejudiced. Lee depicts Koreans being persecuted for practicing Christianity. We learn of the impossible decision many faced after the World War II to return to Korea, but to which side (North or South) was nearly impossible since the entire country was devastated by war. We watch Sunja’s son try to avoid eating garlicky foods in order to prevent bullying in schools, and we see Koreans sidelined into some of the hardest and lowest paying jobs available.
The book gets its title after the mechanical game called pachinko, which can roughly be compared to the Japanese version of a slot machine. Pachinko parlors were often run by Koreans, and the job could certainly be a lucrative one; however, it was not without its costs. Many pachinko parlors were frequented or affiliated with the yakuza, and owning one was not seen as an honest way to earn a living. Lee’s characters have to grapple with the idea of how to fit in with a society that actively doesn’t want you as a part of it–is it worth it to try and be “good Koreans,” or do the pachinko parlors offer a path toward an easier and better life?
Jean Zimmerman’s NPR review states “Lee bangs and buffets and pinballs her characters through life, love and sorrow, somehow making her vast, ambitious narrative seem intimate.” Her point is truly a poignant and beautiful one: Lin models the trajectories of her characters lives from the same machine that offers them hope for a better life: a gamble.
The premise and page count are admittedly a little overwhelming (the book is nearly five hundred pages), but reading it flies by. I was able to finish it in a little under a week, and although I set specific goals for how much I hoped to read each night, Pachinko made it easy to meet them. I loved getting lost in Lee’s prose. Even when her characters are placed in the darkest of situations, they manage to keep ahold of their hope, and that in itself is inspiring.
Rating: 4.5 / 5