I read Pachinko having heard Min Jin Lee interviewed by Sarah Kanowski on ABC’s Conversations and loving her frankness and description of Japanese-Korean relations. Turning little-known history into a novel is a noble pursuit – I would probably never have come across the history of Koreans in Japan otherwise. Reading this novel was a fantastic education in early twentieth century history, including Japanese colonization and political warfare. When interviewed, Lee (who was born in Korea but raised in the United States) revealed that she was largely ignorant of this history as well before beginning research. The novel’s opening lines are poignant: ‘history has failed us, but no matter’. The world has mostly forgotten the plight of the Koreans and their mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese, but the Koreans are hardy people who are willing and able to overcome such adversity, rather than complain about it.
Pachinko is a history in itself, of the fictional family of main character Sunja. The first chapter is dedicated to Sunja’s family history – her disabled father Hoonie marrying her mother Yangjin – but by the end of the chapter the beautifully drawn and gentle Hoonie has ‘died quietly from tuberculosis’. We follow Sunja as she matures, falls for the manipulative older man Hansu and becomes pregnant with his child, is rescued from a life of shame by the kind Christian pastor Isak, and travels with him to live in Japan. Sunja encounters much hardship and adversity through her life, but her interminable spirit persists. Lee is at pains to remind us that she is not beautiful, but she has a strength that matters more in her circumstances.
The prose is tight and uncomplicated, but Lee manages to take us into the minds of her many characters across generations. Some may find that this book covers too much (and it is very long, at over 500 pages) but I love sprawling family dramas and was engrossed until the very end.