Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee, and one that was several decades in the making. Set over the course of a century, from 1887 to 1989, it follows a Korean family living through the Japanese occupation, the Second World War, and beyond.
The novel is split into three parts, and the first one mainly focuses on the early 1930s, when a girl from Busan in southern Korean moves to Osaka in search of a better life. The second part follows the Second World War and the years beyond, while the third part looks at the lives of the children and grandchildren in the 1960s on.
If the Internet is to be believed, it’s the first novel dealing with Korean-Japanese relations written for an English-speaking audience, and that idea really is the main focus of the book. Although the characters are well-painted and the writing is compelling, Pachinko is driven by sociological storytelling, rather than by the characters themselves. It is about an era, about groups of people, and about the various tragedies they must suffer through, due to circumstances entirely out of their control.
Unfortunately, it occasionally feels a little too large in scope. As it moves through the generations and the family grows larger, it is forced to skip larger chunks of time or push certain characters into the background in order to fit everything in. Sometimes I found myself wanting more from the vignettes that we see, or more insight into what the original characters, rather than the grandchildren, are going through.
But the 20th century provides an unrelenting background for the story’s family tragedy. From the Japanese occupation of Korea, through World War Two, to the Korean War and the growth of North Korea, the world moves, and our mostly powerless protagonists can only move with it. The older generations in the story leave Korea because there are no opportunities there, but face terrible conditions once they arrive in Japan. They wish to return home, especially after the war, but they cannot, because the situation back home is even worse. The younger generations, meanwhile, are born in Japan and have nowhere to “go back” to — Japan still considers them Korean, of a lower status, but they have never seen their parents’ country, do not speak the language well, and often desire, above all else, to be Japanese, as much as they can. All the characters grapple with their identities as Korean, whether through hard work or rebellion, desperately trying to blend in or stubbornly standing out.
Pachinko is a family tragedy, a story about suffering, but also a story of strength, of fighting against the odds, and of surviving. It is a beautiful, emotional and addictive novel, and you should definitely go and read it.