THE PLOT: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is about a Korean family living in Japan from 1910 to 1989. Part family saga and part historical fiction, it looks at the lives of this family through big historical events such as WWII and the Korean War. Against this sweeping historical backdrop, the central character is a poor Korean girl (Sunja) who becomes impregnated by a wealthy man outside of wedlock. The story expands through the aftermath of this event through Sunja’s children and grandchildren.
RATING: This book has five stars written all over it. It is a beautiful and universal tale about immigration, racism and the meaning of home. Through each generation’s struggles and successes, we see a different portrait of what it means to be Korean in the twentieth century. Yet we also understand what it’s like to be any outsider in a colonised country, or the country of your birth – something familiar to me as an African in the diaspora. Min Jin Lee’s research and attention to detail brings the story to life, and the simple, clean language allows the plot and setting to speak for itself.
GOOD BITS: Learning about the treatment of Koreans in Japan through this family was eye-opening. Equipped with GCSE history lessons about Mao Zedong, I had little clue as to the holistic politics of the region and how the Japanese invasion of Manchuria affected Korea. Yet it’s not just the historical events which grabbed me. The heart of this novel is the family, and the characters buried themselves into my heart. While they are not always “good” or simple to understand, they all strive to be the best they can be. From hardworking Noa to loyal Kyunghee, these characters will stay with me for many years to come.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Around three quarters of the way through, I started wondering how the story would sustain itself. As we had moved on from the initial characters, I worried that the ending would fizzle out and I wanted to stay with characters who I had built a relationship with (for those who’ve read it, this was when the focus switched to Etzuko and Hana). However, the novel comes full circle and the ending was perfect and powerful.
OVERALL: Read this book. It’s a masterpiece that I believe will become a modern classic. I’ve tried not to give too much away about the plot, because this is simply a book you have to experience. Although I found it extremely compelling and moreish, at over 500 pages it’s one you can take your time to really sink into. I’d recommend it to lovers of Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie or Small Island by Andrea Levy. However, it’s perfect for anyone who loves a complex story against a historical backdrop.