Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


My latest read was a book recommended to me by a friend which I have been meaning to pick up for a while. And this week I finally got round to reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a sprawling family saga which follows the lives of a Korean family in Japan through the years.

Pachinko is a story that we see unfold over almost a century, beginning in 1911 in Yeongdo, Korea, where we are introduced to Hoonie, a club-footed, cleft lipped man who gets married to a teenage girl. From this marriage there is one surviving child, a girl named Sunja, who is one of the key characters we see develop throughout this novel. It didn’t take me long to become immersed in the lives and history of this family, and I was gripped by their plight as they face a number of challenges, both within their family, and the changing landscape of the world around them. One such challenge arises when Sunja becomes pregnant by a married man, something likely to bring shame upon their family. However, she is offered a chance of salvation, with the opportunity to marry a Christian minister, and start a new life in Japan as a wife and mother. From this point we see the journey of a young woman, and her new life in an unfamiliar country and a world that is hostile, as she adjusts to married life with a man who is a stranger. And from this we see how life for her changes, and how this also impacts the lives of future generations.

I thought Pachinko was a wonderfully written story, which was evocative of time and place, building up a vivid image of what life was like for Korean’s living in Japan. This was something I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book, and I was fascinated to discover that Min Jin Lee had wanted to tell their story for almost thirty years, having first heard about the discrimination that Korean’s faced living in Japan whilst at college. This discrimination is something that has had a major impact on their lives, with many reluctant to disclose their backgrounds and Korean heritage to avoid trouble. This is something explored through Pachinko, as Sunja begins her new life, and brings up her children in an environment in which they are not always made welcome. I was gripped by the story of Sunja and her family, and the emotional turmoil they faced throughout their lives, the constant struggle of being a stranger in a foreign land. It is a story that explores the shame and guilt as the characters agonise over the choices they made and have to make, the sacrifices made for each other. There are some heartbreaking moments in this book, but one thing that struck me most throughout was the strength and endurance, as a family who have faced and continue to face many challenges, continue to survive.

I really enjoyed Pachinko, and found it to be a compelling and fascinating story which brought my attention to an overlooked area of history. It is a powerful, and vivid story, and it was a privilege to see the lives of this family unfold, and I was a little sad to leave them behind.

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