Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Fiction Review: Pachinko

I can't recall the first time I heard about the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a National Book Award finalist released in 2017, but it's been nothing but accolades from all of my book friends ever since then! The Book Cougars podcast, hosted by two of my Booktopia friends, interviewed Min Jin Lee, and it seems like all of my friends from Booktopia were talking about Pachinko the past two years. I finally had a chance to read this outstanding, epic novel myself when my neighborhood book group chose it last month, and it received one of our highest ratings.

Pachinko begins in Korea in 1910, when Japan annexed Korea. A disabled but hard-working young man named Hoonie has been raised by his parents, his father a fisherman, in a village on a small Korean island. Against all odds, the village matchmaker finds Hoonie a bride, a lovely girl named Yangjin, from a poor family. After three miscarriages, Yangjin gives birth to a baby girl named Sunja. The small family runs a boarding house, and after Hoonie dies of TB, mother and daughter continue to run the business, allowing them to stay in their home and survive during the Depression. As a teenager, Sunja falls in love with a visiting Japanese businessman, who professes his devotion to her. When she gets pregnant, though, he admits that he is already married. Instead of accepting the shame of becoming a mistress, Sunja marries one of their boarders, a kind though sickly minister named Isak who's been convalescing in their home. The two of them--and soon, Sunja's baby son--establish themselves in Japan, living with Isak's brother and sister-in-law. They are happy with Isak's family, as their own family grows, but Koreans have a very hard life in Japan, treated cruelly and with great prejudice and limited in many ways by the biased laws that don't recognize them as Japanese citizens, no matter how long they stay or how many generations of their family live there. Sunja's earlier decision to leave her baby's biological father also has long-lasting repercussions that no one could have predicted.

Despite so much great feedback on this novel, I wasn't looking forward to reading it last month. I was in the midst of my fall reading challenge and thoroughly enjoying my immersion in suspense, thrillers, and such. However, as soon as I started reading Pachinko, I was immediately immersed in its characters and its world. Lee creates full characters with emotional depth that I came to care about. The setting itself was also fascinating to me. I had no idea of the history of this region at that time. I didn't even know that Japan occupied Korea nor the long, rich, and highly unjust history of Korean immigrants in Japan. I was completely ignorant of the biased laws that continue to this day, preventing even Koreans whose families have been in Japan for many generations from becoming citizens or getting a Japanese passport. The focus of this story, though, is on the microcosm of this one family, against that historical backdrop, which extends from 1910 to 1989. And it is an engrossing, vivid story, showing how one decision or set of actions can reverberate through multiple generations. I was captivated by this novel from start to finish and, despite its almost-500 pages, sorry when it ended. These characters have stayed with me since I finished it a month ago. Luckily, this talented author wrote an earlier novel, Free Food for Millionaires, which I plan to read (Book Cougars did another interview with Min Jon Lee recently about this earlier novel), and she is at work on a third novel. I can't wait to read more from Min Jin Lee!

479 pages, Grand Central Publishing

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Listen to a sampleof the audio book here and/or download it from Audible.

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  1. I loved this one and never expected to when it was recommended to me. Glad u tried it and liked it.

    1. Same here! I didn't think it sounded like something I'd like, despite all the rave reviews - I should know by now to listen to my book friends!

  2. Like you, I have seen this reviewed many times, but haven't read it yet. As Christmas is coming, I'm going to add it to my wish list!