The story starts with a seventeen-year-old girl Sunja, who was smitten by Koh Hansu, a young dynamic, Korean from Jeju island. But, he was already married and had three daughters in Osaka. Madly in love and unknown to the truth, Sunja became pregnant. Koh Hansu offered her to be his mistress as he couldn’t marry her. She refused and decided to raise her child on her own. Her life seemed ruined because she no longer remained marriage worthy as per Korean customs. A Christian minister, Baek Isak arrived in their boardinghouse and proposed Sunja to marry her. They moved to Osaka to start a new life as immigrants and thus began the family saga spanning over four generations.
I didn’t know about the situations of Koreans in 1900s prior to reading this. They had to flee their country, felt detached from their homeland and were frowned upon in Japan. They lived in shabby houses with animals, suffered job crises, and even if by some stroke of luck they got employed somewhere they were paid less.
Lee has managed to capture the plight of Korean immigrants very well. She depicts political tensions, war atrocities, famine circumstances, and Japanese supremacy with finesse. The resilience of her characters to withstand the endless hardships and emerge as successful, rich and powerful Koreans in Japan is a journey in itself, worth reading.
Pachinko signifies the struggles faced by Koreans
I think the title of the book is cleverly picked. Pachinko is a Japanese pinball game more of a gambling arcade. Koreans working in Pachinko parlours symbolise the chances they had to take in order to make a name for themselves in a Japanese dominated society. Noa and Mozasu, Sunja’s children also found solace in Pachinko parlours.
Both of her children had no resemblance to each other. Noa aspired to be a learned, knowledgeable man like Baek Isak and study at Waseda University whereas Mozasu despised education. Mozasu gave up on school and started working in a Pachinko parlour. Noa also ended up working in the same Pachinko business as his brother.
Sunja was the power of the entire book
I was particularly impressed with Sunja’s portrayal. A hardworking, dedicated, and wise woman, born to a crippled father, Sunja was a very loved child. She was not an extraordinary beauty but in her father’s eyes, she was in every sense. Though they were poor, they were happy and enjoyed even the tiniest pleasures of life. Her father taught her tactics of trading and negotiations with money lenders.
She never felt the responsibility of earning money should be left alone to men and always encouraged her sister-in-law to pursue her dream of selling kimchi. She never failed to impress me with her dedication towards her family be it taking matters in her own hands to clear debts or work to make ends meet.
Food brought me closer to Korean heritage
Lee has included Korean and Japanese cuisine highlighting their rich cultural heritage which really appealed to me. White rice, udon, and kimchi salad enriched my reading experience and brought me a step closer to the world Lee tried to weave.
A great epic with a pinch of trivial flaws
This book has all the elements of a great epic. Faith, suffering, integrity, family discord, loss, love, and food. Though there are some notable ups and downs, this book is still an extensive, thoroughly researched, and captivating read.
Lee gives an elaborate description of her characters throughout the book. Everyone had their own set of beliefs, mannerisms, history, baggage, and struggles. Though it got really confusing towards the end to keep up with all the characters. I felt some bits were a bit stretched out and I intentionally skimmed those parts.
More for the story, less for the characters. Overall, I recommend this book if you like to read some historical fiction and are willing to look beyond some minor flaws.
If this book intrigues you, then check out my review of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Have you read this book?
There is so much more that I want to talk about this book but I don’t want to make this post unnecessarily lengthy so let me know in the comments if you want me to write a separate post covering the detailed character sketches.
If you consider getting a copy after reading this post, please buy it from Amazon