Sunday, 9 July 2017

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Earlier this year, the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, an American-Korean author, was published by Head of Zeus (Apollo). My review copy appeared on my № 8 reading list. It's a story about a Korean family in Japan, about their immigrant experience, their struggles and resilience, spanning eight decades in the 20th century. My feelings about the book are slightly mixed, mainly for its quick pace - its 490 pages read very fast - and the fault I found with the lack of character development. However, I think the book's message is important and historically valuable, for the author casts a light on a social problem I was unaware of: the treatment and oppression of Koreans in Japanese society for decades.

The title of the book, the word pachinko, needs explanation. It first appears halfway through the book. Pachinko is a pinball game and the pachinko parlors are a huge industry in Japan, with a larger export revenue than the car industry. The pachinko parlors were one of few places that would hire Koreans. What is more, the only housing solution for Koreans was a tiny shack in ethnic ghettos for no one wanted to rent out properties to them.

Pachinko tells the story of four generations, beginning in 1911, in a fishing village in the south-eastern part of the Korean peninsula, the year after Japan's annexation of the country. To fastforward slightly, a love affair with a married man leaves the fifteen-year-old Sunja pregnant. Her family is saved from ruin when Isak, a Christian minister from the north, offers to marry her and take her with him to Osaka, in Japan, where they arrive in April 1933.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


At the start of their journey, around page 80, the story really takes off and becomes somewhat of a page-turner. The writing style is plain and because of conversations the pace is quick, which is also the book's main flaw. Instead of developing the characters, giving them more depth, and allowing the reader to stand still with them to gain a better insight, it feels as if the author is constantly moving the story along, perhaps to fit it into historical context. Min Jin Lee's story is certainly interesting but the storytelling lacks density.

She divides the book into three parts: The first two are mainly about the immigrant experience, about Sunja and her family's struggles in an ethnic ghetto, and on a farm during the war. The third part starts in April 1962 and mainly deals with her descendants. At that point the family is financially more stable, and the younger members later prosper with the help of the pachinko business. In my opinion, this is where the author derails; the third is the novel's weakest part. Min Jin Lee introduces a new set of characters - few of which I grew fond of - and leaves a gap by almost abandoning the older generation. Sunja and the older family members seem to fade into the background, as if they are no longer of much importance, when in fact it seems to me that so much if left untold of their story, especially of their feelings.

Sunja is a character that I grew to love and hoped to get to know better in the third part. About hundred pages in, finally, came this glimpse of insight into her mind: 'All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough' (p. 420). Alas, it was short-lived. The author took us straight into conversations and moved the story along.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Even though Pachinko isn't a literary masterpiece, one has to honour the author's effort. Part of me wants to root for the book because of its themes and its relevance to the times we live in: immigration and identity, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. This is where I think Min Jin Lee is at her finest. There is scrutiny of Japan but she avoids feeding opinions to her readers and the pit of letting them see things in black and white. I completely trust her research for the book, of the Korean experience in Japanese society, and I believe she leaves it to the reader to pass judgement.

Readers who are only looking for a story will enjoy this book, enjoy its fast pace. But I'm afraid readers who turn to literature for the writing style, for sentences one wants to read again, and even write down, will be left a bit empty-handed.

Pachinko
By Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus / Apollo
Hardcover, 490 pages
BUY HERE

Pachinko appeared on my № 8 reading list.


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