Rating: 4 stars
Pachinko was on the list for The Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge. I ordered it from the library, but lots of people wanted to read it, and when it eventually arrived it was too late for the challenge. I’d read enough about it to still want to read it, though.
It opens with the arranged marriage of Hoonie, a man with a cleft lip and club foot, and Yangjin, the youngest of four daughters of an impoverished farmer who at 15 years old is described as
the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.
Only eleven pages long, this first chapter packs in a lot of characterisation. It’s beautifully and straightforwardly written, describing the true nature of love perfectly. It also sets the historical scene for the rest of the novel, starting with the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 and describing the economic hardships endured by the working population over the following two decades.
The novel spans almost eighty years, following four generations of Yangjin’s family. It reveals the history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, the hatred and shame that exists in being treated as second class citizens, the insecurity that those who try to make a new life in Japan feel.
It’s at times a distressing story. There’s mistreatment of Korean citizens at the hands of their Japanese occupiers. There’s an older man, Hansu, who takes advantage of a young girl’s innocence and desire for romance. That young girl, Sunja, the daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin, has strength of character, and she is saved from potential shame by a young pastor, Baek Isak, who gives her a new life in Japan. It isn’t an easy life. Korean immigrants to Japan are despised by the Japanese. Sunja’s eldest son, Noa, tries to pass himself off as Japanese and lives a stressful life as a result.
The book reads so naturally that it’s clear a lot of research has gone into it. The descriptions of each generation’s lives, the socio-political context of their times, the honesty in the way they are portrayed made for compelling reading. Reading Min Jin Lee’s comments on how the novel evolved from her initial ideas in 1989 to the final rewriting that started in 2008 when she was living in Tokyo and had spoken to Koreans born in Japan bore out my feeling that she had taken time to truly understand her subject.
There are strong women at the heart of the story, from Yangjin raising her daughter as a single mother after Hoonie’s death, running the family home as a boarding house to make ends meet, to Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee who rescue the Baek family from debt in Osaka, and hold things together when Isak is arrested for dissidence at the start of the war in 1939. The strength and resolve of these women lift the novel out of unrelenting misery. Their resilience brings hope with it that things will work out okay for the family, despite the discrimination that they battle against daily. Because as well as being Korean, the family is also Christian. Not the best belief system to follow at a time when Japan was in ultra-nationalist, Emperor worshipping mode.
The male characters are interesting, too, but in a different way. The absent fathers cast a long shadow over their children. Hoonie is a hero to Sunja, an ideal against which she measures her marriage and her parenting. Isak is a hero to Noa and his brother Mozasu, an example of what an educated man can be. Hansu, when he reappears in Sunja’s life and tries to take control of Noa’s future, influences the boy in subtle ways that have a long lasting impact. Mozasu tries to be the sort of father to his son Solomon that he believes Isak would have been to him, had Isak lived for longer.
The main theme of the book is suffering and how people deal with it, whether they choose to let it overwhelm them or refuse to let it impede them. The Koreans suffer at the hands of the Japanese, but some of the characters work within the system and achieve wealth and status. They know their own worth and don’t let prejudice get in the way of making a good life for themselves. Others allow shame to get the better of them. Women suffer in the sense that they take on a destiny that involves loving and serving their families and putting themselves second. A repeated phrase is “A woman’s lot is to suffer.” Sunja isn’t convinced by this self-fulfilling prophesy.
“Go-saeng,” Yangjin said out loud. “A woman’s lot is to suffer.”
“Yes, go-saeng,” Kyunghee nodded, repeating the word for suffering.
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. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?
The book is also about love and loyalty. Sunja remains loyal to Isak after his death because of the love he showed her. Mozasu befriends a Japanese boy at school, Totoyama, who is bullied because he has a disabled brother and a single mother. Totoyama remains a loyal friend to Mozasu, through to the very end of the book, a gentle presence in his life. Kyunghee is loyal to her husband Joseb through all of the tribulations they encounter in their relationship and through Joseb’s fixed ideas about how his family members should conduct themselves.
I found this book thought provoking, both on that general theme of suffering and choice, and on the prejudice shown by Japanese and Koreans towards each other and the historical reasons for it. I knew in broad terms the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea, the Korean War that followed World War Two and the subsequent partition of the nation into North and South. I hadn’t ever considered it from a Korean perspective and appreciated the way in which this novel deals with the Korean experience of that history.
Throughout the novel, I felt a lot for the characters, and wanted things to work out well in their lives. There were some shocking moments, in the sense that unexpected things happened that made me gasp out loud. There was one story that didn’t really seem to go anywhere, but that wasn’t simply background information either – the tangential story about Totoyama and his wife. It felt like it belonged in a different book, where Totoyama and his wife were the central characters. I didn’t feel that it added anything relevant to my understanding of Totoyama as Mozasu’s friend, and his wife only appeared in this one slim segment with no impact on the main characters, so I didn’t feel that I needed to know anything about her within the wider context of the novel. That aside, though, I really loved this book.