Ever since I started this blog, I have aspired to write a book review but never found a book that compelled me enough to sit down and pen my thoughts about it. Last week, I completed Pachinko, a book authored by Min Jin Lee. Three years and umpteen books later, I have finally found a book that deserves a review – Pachinko.
Pachinko takes you through four generations of Koreans who lived through the turmoil of Japanese colonization. I hate to admit this, but I was blissfully unaware of the Korean Japan antipathy and history that followed. For a person like me who knew very little about Japan-Korean history, this book was not just a great read but also an eye-opener.
Min Jin Lee has delved into such impeccable detailing of each character that you are instantly drawn to their lives and emotions, starting page one. Her work is a seamless blend of fiction and reality which is deeply saddening and endearing, all at once. The characters are fictional, but what happened to them has probably happened to a Korean who lived in Japan. To many immigrant Koreans in Japan, in fact. When this reality hits, it hits hard.
The story starts even before the protagonist is born. It starts with the Sunja’s grandparents, who lived during the early years of colonization. Though these bits haven’t been delved into in detail, the setting is evidently much lighter and less tense through these pages. Now, when I say ‘protagonist’, I for some reason considered Sunja the protagonist of the story. But as I shut the book, I realized that giving her the status of the protagonist didn’t seem fair. Sunja’s mother, Yangjin is a part of the book even before Sunja is born, and so are many other characters who are as much a part of the book as her. But, for some reason, she came across as the focal point of the story and though it felt wrong, it seemed inevitable.
Pachinko is an ode to the strength of female relationships and bonds. There are many distinct female characters in the story, each from a different generation, from different backgrounds and even different nationalities; but all imbued with one common trait – resilience. This is refreshingly uplifting to read and comes sparking off the page.
Many may wonder what a Pachinko is (I wondered for the first 300 pages of the book). Pachinko is a Japanese form of pinball, a mechanical game used both as a recreational arcade game and infamously known for its gambling roots. Since gambling for cash is considered illegal in Japan, Pachinko parlors where the rules of gambling are different and legal are highly popular in Japan. Through the book, I learned that running Pachinko parlors was/is considered a dishonorable professional and most Koreans were given the conniving task of handling these parlors.
I don’t want to reveal a single plotline, as that is for you to experience and consume. However, I cannot conclude without telling you what I felt after I completed 490 pages of Pachinko. It felt like a lifetime. A lifetime, in remote parts of Korea and post-Nagasaki parts of Japan during the early 20th century. It felt as though I had lived through these fragments of history, known these characters as a neighbor, known their hardships and emotions.
Min Jin Lee has beautifully touched upon racism, xenophobia, classism, gender discrimination, occupational hierarchy and most importantly, the identity crisis of immigrant children growing up in an unforgiving new country. However, human beings being sculpted a certain way adapt and thrive through all these chaos, some the way you expect and some in unexpected ways; but nevertheless, they survive. Not all, but most.
Pachinko is the tale of hardships, a never-ending saga of them. Throughout the book, you’re hoping for a glint of happiness that lasts over a few pages, but when you flip the last page is when actual grief engulfs you. I was quite upset that there was no more to read, no more to know, no more generations to see grow. After all, when you read through five generations of a family’s existence, you become a part of them.