Reading Pachinko is a sheer pleasure. The family saga of four generations Korean in Japan is so mesmerizing that I turned every page with curiosity and vigor. I couldn't and wouldn’t put down the book. I was immersed in the story for days.
In this book, grand topics such as history, religion, racism, xenophobia, and sexism are intricately interwoven. Min Jin Lee manages to narrate the story with great poise. Sunja, the protagonist, is the beloved little daughter of an impoverished family. Her mother brought her up after her father Hoonie died of tuberculosis and supported their life by running a boardinghouse. Fell in love with Hansu, Sunja got pregnant but refused to be his mistress in Busan after she learnt that Hansu was married. Isak the minister married Sunja out of his Christian belief and took her to Osaka. As a Korean expatriate, Sunja lost her husband, suffered discrimination, started from scratch, raised her two boys, survived her older son and witnessed the prosperity of her family in her later years. Her story is a living narrative history of the nameless many.
The parts about death(eg. Hoonie, Yangjin’s babies, Isak, Noa, Yumi and Yoseb) are very well-trimmed, yet without compromising any of its poignancy. It is a juxtaposition of cruel reality and determination to carry on.
The title Pachinko, a gamble machine popular in Japan, is a metaphor for the Koreans in Japan. As a business considered filthy, it is one of the very few jobs available for Korean expatriates, who are socio-economically inferior in Japan. Koreans, like the metal balls in the machine, lose or win in the world of chaos and conflicts. The book ends with Sunja and her family surviving and thriving in Japan after decades of effort, yet the beginning of the book still echoes in my mind—Does history really fail them? What about those idealists who went back to North Korea, had no agency and power over their lives and died for nothing?