“All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?”
When teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu in the market of her small Korean village of Busan, she has no idea that their love affair will irrevocably alter the fates of all the generations of her family that will follow after her. Pregnant and unwed, she makes a marriage of convenience with a kindly Korean Christian pastor, who is on his way to Japan to minister to the downtrodden Korean community there. Soon the separation from Korea becomes permanent, as World War II destroys fortunes, and then the Korean War rends their homeland in two. Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in Japan, will live their lives and likely die there, but they will never be Japanese. Brothers Noa and Mozasu follow this fate down different paths, grappling with what it means to be a “good Japanese” or a “good Korean,” and who you are when you have no place to call home.
Beginning in the early 1900s, Pachinko fictionalizes the Koreans who arrived in Japan during the colonial period, and the succeeding generations who found themselves stateless after Korea was divided, and Japan refused to recognize them as citizens. Many generations of Korean Japanese would never see Korea, and yet would be unable to claim the land where they were born as their home. It is a narrative that is at once sweeping and minute, capturing three wars and four generations, and yet also sinking down into the day to day lives of the Baek family as they struggle to make their way in Japan.
Min Jin Lee relies on third person omniscient narration, which can comfortably encompass the many successive generations of characters born into the Baek family. This allows for deep insight into each subsequent character as they take their place at the heart of the story for a time, before passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, however, I found that I related more to the older characters who we get to spend more time with. While I had more in common with the younger generations, like Mozasu’s son Solomon, and his girlfriend, Phoebe, I was less interested in their stories. Nevertheless, Lee’s characters and the history that propels them are what gives Pachinko its depth. I was particularly compelled by the friendship that develops between Sunja, and her sister-in-law, Kyung-hee. Kyung-hee knows the truth about Sunja’s marriage to Isak, but she never shuns or judges her. Rather, the two women become allies, and it is through the strength of this bond that they carry the family through its many trials.
Thematically, Pachinko is about the experience of otherness in various forms. For the first generation of Koreans, it is being away from home in a strange land where they are considered less-than. For their children, it is being born in Japan but never accepted as Japanese. And later in the novel, Lee begins to introduce alienated Japanese, like Haruki, Etsuko, and Hana, who struggle with the strictures that are supposed to define their Japanese identities. Haruki is gay, and has a disabled brother, both shameful facts in a conformist society. He keeps his sexuality a secret, even marrying a woman of his mother’s choice. After his mother’s death, he is faced with social pressure to put his brother in an institution. Etsuko is rejected by mainstream society after her affair and divorce, and is left feeling unable to marry the Korean Japanese man she loves, because it would further disgrace her family. Her daughter Hana already lives in the shadow of Etsuko’s divorce, and finds her options limited by the taint of her mother’s fallen reputation. Their fates wend together with the Baek family, exploring how the strictures impact Japanese and Koreans alike.
Pachinko is a striking portrait of both struggle and family, and how the one shapes the other. As the author herself put it an interview with The Atlantic, “even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark.”
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