Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Pachinko is a recreational game compared to the slot machine in the western world. Originating in Japan, where gambling is illegal, it is often associated with criminal activity, although it still remains a popular pastime. From the very beginning, the pachinko business has been dominated by Koreans, most likely a result of the heavy discrimination they experienced in Japanese society from the early to mid-1900s. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a family saga spanning seven decades, concentrates on a Korean family’s origin, their eventual migration to Japan, and how they fought to survive in a society where they were treated as less than human.
“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” Korea was annexed by Japan the year before the family’s founding couple, Hoonie and Yangjin, were married. They manage to get by until Sunja, their daughter, finds herself in an unfortunate situation that leads to long-lasting consequences. Starting in 1910 and ending in 1989, the events of the novel take place during a pivotal time in Korean history. Lee provides historical background throughout the plot in an astonishingly natural way. It is truly a privilege to experience this period through the eyes of one family.
When many characters appear in a novel, the distinctions between them frequently make or break the story. Lee’s depiction of character growth and decline as the decades pass by is her greatest strength. She demonstrates that when culture inevitably changes, character interactions evolve. As the narrative spends a decent amount of time on each successive generation, the events they experience deeply impact the reader. Nothing is glossed over, and every moment is important. Emotions run deep, both on and off the page, especially when bad things happen to characters the reader feels a personal connection to.
Lee’s decision to portray the plot chronologically and continuously enables the reader to focus more on family dynamics and less on keeping characters and events straight. The simple structure also works well as it allows her to carry multiple themes throughout the entire novel without over-saturating the story. The general themes of oppression, religion, and displacement play important roles in shaping the family, but the biggest emphasis comes from one scandal in particular, which affects the family for many decades.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is one of the best multigenerational novels to come out of this decade. A harrowing tale rooted in history, Lee more than just teaches readers about this significant period in Korean history, she humanizes it. Her nuanced characters charm, devastate, and ultimately embed themselves in your heart. I know I won’t be forgetting their story anytime soon.