Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is a novel that my lovely sister got for me for Christmas (thank you!).
I'll start by saying Pachinko gave me really similar vibes to a few other books that I've read and loved. The struggle of an immigrant family and the way it was portrayed felt very similar to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Pachinko addresses the question of what it means to retain your Asian identity in a different country, and how you struggle to fit in all while losing your sense of home, in a way that reminds me very much of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (one of my all time favourite books - read it!). The slow change of a family from 'poor' to 'rich,' and the myriad changes associated with this, is very reminiscient of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. I think what I love about all of these books, and why they feel so relevant today, is because they take on and try to convey and question the nature of what it means to have an identity of 'other' in a world where you are not the norm. Pachinko is the modern book for anyone that's read all of these and wants more.
WARNING: Beware one major spoiler in the following paragraph. I won't give away the more important spoilers later on in the book, but the premise of the book is a spoiler in and of itself. (Reading on won't stop you from enjoying the book later, I promise).
Pachinko is the story of a young Korean woman - Sunja - who gets pregnant only to realize her baby's father, a wealthy businessman, is actually married (there's your spoiler). She makes the brave decision to refuse to be his mistress and instead marries a kindly, sympathetic pastor - Isak - and moves with him to Osaka. Pachinko then follows Sunja and her family's struggles in Japan - facing starvation, overwork, the loss of family members, and a strong anti-Korean racist element that reappears consistently across the course of the almost 100 years of the novel (though it manifests differently).
For me, what stood out about Pachinko was the resilience of each of the characters - told differently for every character. "Koreans" or even "Koreans in Japan" aren't lumped together under a single umbrella of suffering and oppression. What we get to see, instead, is the myriad destinies, personalities, coping strategies, hopes, dreams...that make humanity unique. (I realize that's probably one of the cheesiest things I've ever written). However, for me, it rang true that being an "immigrant," or being part of the "other," doesn't mean that everyone experiences the same thing in the same way.
This novel is a vivid and emotional depiction of the hardships and terrors that Korean immigrants (and the generations that followed) faced in Japan. At the same time, it pays homage to the accomplishments of each subsequent generation, and hammers home the importance of family and personal connection.
What I liked about it:
- The setting. I haven't read a lot of literature focusing on Japan's occupation of Korea and its impact on the Korean population. This is the first account I've seen in the format of a novel. I found that Pachinko gave me a lot of insight and taught me a lot about that period of time, and helped me understand a little more about where that has left Japan / Korea today.
- Questioning identity. From generation to generation, this novel depicted the struggle with one's identity. "What does it mean to be Korean?" "What does it mean to be Japanese?" What happens when you're neither one or the other? In a much less extreme level than in the story, the question of racial and cultural identity is something that has always been part of my life growing up. It was incredibly fascinating to see it play out in this book.
- The strength of women. Yes, some of the men in the novel are good people. I loved Mozasu's sunny, 'what works for me,' honest approach to life, and adored Isak's goodness. However, the women are the backbone of the novel. Every character (starting with Sunja) is real, gritty, isn't afraid to do what's necessary (ignoring pride if need be) and at the same time, has her flaws. Min Jin Lee captures what isn't always recognized - that despite the patriarchal nature of Asian societies, women are their true strength. I spent so much of this book frustrated with the men for not working as hard or not acknowledging everything the women were accomplishing.
- Pacing. This book paces really fast. Once I started reading, I got caught up and finished it in a couple of days. In this short span, it covers almost 100 years. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pace of this because it let you see, in glimpses, the growth and change from generation to generation. (At the same time, this probably accounts for part of what I didn't like...next).
What I didn't like:
- Lack of depth in certain areas. Yes, Sunja's family is the focus of the narrative, so I understand that the other characters serve as foils to them and their stories aren't as important in the context of the novel. Still, I didn't like being teased by glimpses of fascinating people or fascinating moments (ex. Mozasu's wife, Noa's entire marriage, Isak's experiences while he's in jail, etc.)
- “Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
- “No one is clean. Living makes you dirty.”
- "History has failed us."