Min Jin Lee‘s Pachinko is a beautifully written and emotionally charged epic history of one Korean family—as well as others associated with them—who are forced to deal with discrimination and cruelty in 20th-century Japan.
From almost the first page, I was fully immersed in the lives of the characters that Lee managed to infuse with such real emotion and vulnerability. There is a massive cast of characters in this book, and it was easy as a reader to forge a meaningful connection to each and every one of them. This book plows through the decades and sometimes large swatches of time pass between chapters; though this narrative style left several plot holes, it also allowed the story to move forward at a decent pace.
We are first introduced to Sunja when she’s a young girl working in her parents’ small but successful boarding house in Korea. Sunja encounters an accidental pregnancy, the result of her odd affair with a rich older man, and a benevolent young man named Isak decides to rescue her reputation by marrying her and bringing her with him to Japan. There, they settle in with his brother, Yoseb, and his kind-hearted wife, Kyunghee, whom Sunja instantly forges a deep bond with. Upon their arrival, the discrimination against Koreans by the Japanese is on full-display and stays as such throughout the novel. Although the level of discrimination that Koreans faced in Japan as shown in Pachinko was heartbreaking, it was also incredibly eye-opening since I was completely ignorant to this aspect of history.
Sunja and Isak’s sons—Noa and Mozasu—are destined to face unfair prejudices for the rest of their lives. Noa’s story, in particular, is something that will literally reach out and rip your heart out. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to be emotionally attached to characters, but Noa really got me. When you read this book, you’ll understand. There are also several other moments in Pachinko that felt like a swift punch to the gut—Lee likes to deliver the most devastating plot twists with the most simple and understated sentences. It’s cruel but clever.
For example, death lingers over this novel as a whole. Several characters face death at different points in time, some so seemingly out-of-the-blue that I found myself re-reading the same lines over and over again, trying to make sense out of what just happened. Two beloved characters in the book meet an untimely end, and their deaths are made known with just a few words and that’s it. Most of the time, authors tend to stretch out the deaths of characters and oversaturate the reader with details. Lee does the opposite and takes a “less is more” approach, and I believe that these deaths were made even more emotionally striking because of this. It will leave the reader with many questions and few answers. It’s frustrating and masterful all at once.
Readers will also meet many other characters that will leave a mark as they flip through the pages of this engrossing book—there is definitely no shortage of complex characters here. The plot is constantly shifting but stays grounded in major themes such as identity and family. There was no section in this book that felt particularly sluggish, despite the fact that this is a relatively long book. It’s hard to pinpoint any weaknesses in a novel so well-rounded in its strengths.
My verdict: read this book. This is not some novel that you should just try to pick up or try to get around to at some point: this is a book that you need to read right now. It’s one of the most moving stories you will read. These characters will stick with you. The history lessons that Lee succeeds in teaching will change how you view the world. This was one of the best stories I’ve read, and I don’t throw that honor around lightly.