Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Yeongdo, Korea, and Osaka, Nagano, and Yokohama, Japan 1910-1989
My Copy Came From: I purchased the paperback from Costco.
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Review: Epic historical fiction that reads quickly with intriguing characters.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a book that’s been on my radar since it was released. I’d heard nothing but wonderful things about the book, and I picked up a copy awhile back but never got around to the read. Pachinko ended up being selected for my book club meeting in August, and I was thrilled to finally get to it!
History has failed us, but no matter.
I found Pachinko fascinating in regards to the history of the countries of Korea and Japan, and the history of Koreans living in Japan. There were many things I learned while reading this, from the racism that exists, to various laws, to the history of the countries.
While the facts were fascinating, what really drew me to the book were the characters. Pachinko starts out with the story of Hoonie, who loves his wife and his daughter, Sunja. The story ends up following Sunja, as she falls in love with a married man and ends up pregnant. She then leaves Korea for Japan after marrying a nice man named Isak passing through her town. Pachinko follows Sunja and Isak as they grow their family and struggle to survive.
Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.
I loved the characters of Hoonie and Isak. Hoonie isn’t in the book for long, but his love for his family and example of a man is felt throughout the whole book. That same love and example is shown in Isak, too. Our main character, Sunja, was pleasant to read. She doesn’t talk a whole lot and keeps everything inside, so she wasn’t the most inviting of characters, but her quiet strength and resolve powers the book. As time goes along, we meet Sunja’s children, Noa and Mozasu, and the story shifts focus to them and their growing up.
You are very brave, Noa. Much, much braver than me. Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.
The more modern sections of the book I struggled to read. I just didn’t have the interest in those time periods that I had with the earlier setting. There were several scenes that felt thrown in and didn’t fit with the rest of the book. For example, one character is introduced only to end up walking along what I called “Prostitute Park” (it was a park where many were coupled up in the bushes and people were soliciting), and witnesses various sex acts, and I didn’t feel that these scenes were necessary. The character is brought in to walk along this park and then is never mentioned again.
There was also another character named Hana that was brought in at the end that felt thrown in and felt like it was something to check off the list of what needed to be included in the book. So, for me, I feel this book could’ve ended about 10 years and 100 pages before it did, as the last 100 pages brought in new characters that didn’t get as much focus as others and it made the book feel lopsided to me. The front half spent a lot of time in buildup, and I feel the end should’ve been either longer, with the space for those characters to grow, or edited out entirely.
But, while those last 100 pages dragged on, the book as a whole actually read very quickly. The chapters are short, and the prose is very matter-of-fact and isn’t flowery at all, so there weren’t a lot of descriptive sections that bogged the book down. The plot was always moving forward, especially at the beginning. Pachinko is told with an omniscient point of view, and it worked well here in that the reader is able to see what various characters are thinking and the reasoning behind their actions.
Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes—there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.
Besides the length of the book, another thing about Pachinko that I didn’t like is all of the time jumps that happened. This happens a lot in epic historical fiction, and it is a device that I just do not care for. I’m talking about when you jump years between chapters and when drastic events (character deaths, historic events, etc) happen off page. We see the buildup to these events, we know what is going to happen, but we don’t see the actual event appear on page. It drives me bonkers, and it particularly bothered me here. It’s not so much the jumping years that bugs me so much as when those years encompass major changes for the characters we follow. It makes those epic events feel glossed over. I’m not a fan of this technique!
Pachinko was a book club read for me, and our group overall had mixed opinions. Some loved the book, and others were so-so about it. I enjoyed it, even with all of its faults, and am glad that I read it. While there were things I disliked about Pachinko, all in all I did love the book, and really loved several of the characters. There’s a good story here, and that story and characters pulled me along and drew me in.
Bottom Line: Excellent historical fiction with compelling characters that was a bit too long.
Have you read Pachinko? Do you enjoy reading epic historical fiction?