Review: Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

I felt like I had been seeing this book everywhere – bookshops, Instagram, online, even at Syd Writers Festival – so I was delighted when the new book club I’m in with some of my Frisbee teammates agreed to read it as our first ever pick!

Before we get stuck in to it, please appreciate how on theme our super-star host’s dinner was for this novel. Drool.

Pachinko in-line

Pachinko follows the story of Sunja and her family through four generations and across two countries. From the small fishing village of Yeongdo in Korea to the streets of Osaka in Japan, this is a story of epic proportions and intricate familial (and racial) relationships. As the book blurb so aptly states, this is ‘an epic tale of family, identity, love, death, and survival’.

While I’m not normally one for historical fiction, the focus that Lee puts on the relationships and people in this book, rather than focussing on the wars and political history so much, made this a fantastic read for me.

There are so many characters in this book, it would be impossible for me to outline every single one for you, but I would like to talk about a couple of them. We first see Sunja, the main character through the story, as a young, confused teenager who falls pregnant to an older Japanese man who she has been seeing around the markets and in secret rendevouzs around Yeongdo for some time. While she blossoms in to a stronger character when she settles in Osaka, Sunja then seems to get weaker in character through the second half of the book. I found this mildly disappointing as I shook my book in frustration multiple times thinking to myself “argh, NO, don’t give in, don’t do that!”, but I can understand why Lee chose to depict Sunja the way she did as there are a lot of cultural elements at play through this book.

I adored the relationship between Kyunghee and Sunja throughout the book, seeing how balanced they were as a pairing and loving how easily they fell in to their sisterly roles with each other was one of the small joys I found in this book. That’s not to say I didn’t love it, just that when you’re reading a historical fiction tome set in war-torn and politically charged Japan, ‘joy’ isn’t really one of the emotions written in to the story!

In some ways, I think the less you know about this story going in to it, the better. I didn’t know much about the storyline when I picked it up but it was so interesting to watch all the storylines and relationships unfurl, grow, and fall apart across the generations. While there are certainly elements in the book I don’t fully grasp as I’m not a history-buff (or anything even closely resembling one), Lee gives you enough information to understand some of the decisions and thinking by the characters (but little enough information that you’re still left questioning how people really feel or why they react the way they do to some things – I AM LOOKING AT YOU, NOA).

Honestly, there are parts of the book that myself and the rest of our book club ranted over during our dinner, just because Lee moves on SO QUICKLY from some hugeand at times heartbreaking reveals in the book. Almost like an ‘oh well that happened, moving on now” vibe. Undoubtedly this was done on purpose, as Lee says herself a number of times through the book, ‘a woman’s lot is to suffer’…and boy does she love highlighting it!

Since reading the book, I’ve learned that Pachinko took 18 years to grow from an idea in Lee’s head to a published book. During which time she moved to Tokyo and lived there for 4-5 years to research. You can definitely see the care and thought that has gone in to this book, and I applaud Lee for crafting such a delicate and intricate story for us to enjoy.

My parting thought for you all is…’why is it called Pachinko?!’. There are allusions and hints, but nothing concrete enough to sell me and my book club on being a reason to name the entire four-generation history of the novel after the gambling parlours. The closest we got to an answer was a quote from Min Jin Lee that reads ‘The world is an unfair place and yet we continue to play, and we continue to show up. We have to’.

Rating: Fantastically written and with such intricate views on love, loss, and family, Pachinko was a delight to read. I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind mulling over a longer book, or enjoys historical fiction and epic tales of family and culture.

***

My friends, I hope the world brings you more fairness and joy than it did the family of Pachinko, but regardless I hope you continue to play, and to show up.

M xx

Buy it here.

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