Pachinko is a history of a Korean family living in Japan. From a small fishing island in Korea in 1911 to expat life with a big bank in 1989, Min Jin Lee traces four generations of this poor family in her sprawling tale. This is a very patient saga whose whole is greater than its parts: it speaks to the immigrant experience, the determination of identity, about respect and exile.
The book opens with the deceptively simple and bold statement: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Because history is written not just by the victors, but those who can write: the telling of a story without a segment of its characters because of their illiteracy does a great disservice to the identity formation of those hearing the story. So Lee has set out to address it in her own quiet, informed way.
We start in Yeongdo, Korea, where a kind but physically damaged man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. Despite the odds, the miscarriages and dead children, the poverty and war and illiteracy, they come to have a harmonious marriage and one sweet daughter while running a boardinghouse. When their sweet daughter Sunja falls pregnant to a married yazuka, a kind of mafia boss, the family face ruin.
But a boarder, a Christian minister, offers her a way out away from the shame, with his name, as his wife in Japan. This sets the groundwork for this epic tale of almost a century. Sunja’s salvation leads her to a hostile country, leaving her mother and all she knows behind, where she has no friends and no language.
Really, this story is carried on the back of its resilient, self-sacrificing women. But what is astonishing to me then is its patent madonna/whore complex. Sunja was taught from a very young age that a woman’s lot is to suffer and despite her late-blooming resistance that is demonstrably true in this book: the good, abstemious mother, or widowed young grandmother who never remarries, or childless aunt who cooks and cares and carries; the only women who have sex before marriage are left grieving, dumped, or dying. There is some movement between the categories as a young unmarried pregnant Sunja crosses into madonna as she devotes her life from young widowhood to her sons, and is yet still ultimately punished by the mistakes she made when she was a girl at the hands of a much older and married man. I am oversimplifying here, and the point of the story is bigger than this, but it is tiring and boring to see these tropes yet again. It is also disappointing seeing them utilised by an author who generally demonstrates that she can do better.
But Pachinko does have some incredible poignancy and quite passion in its pages. There is a real beauty that Lee has interwoven throughout the generations as tension builds and releases over love, race, and shame. It is both a very sad and very interesting book: a history from a perspective that hasn’t been listened to before.