I just finished reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and I feel sort of breathless (in a good way). This was one of those books that are difficult to put down and I love that feeling. ❤
All her life, Sunja has 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?
Pachinko is historical fiction, which is one of my favorite genres to read. However, I have to admit that I knew very little of the Korean or Japanese history that the book describes. It is good to be reminded that there is so much info that we are not exposed to. I’ve always loved to learn about history, ever since elementary school. But because of where I live (Finland, Nordic country, European country) the focus of the history lessons was of course mostly on Western history. So much is still to be learnt and I’m happy to open my eyes to new aspects of history.
Pachinko is a long-ish novel, over 500 pages, and it’s basically a story of a family in Korea and what happens to them over the decades. The main story starts from a small village in 1930s Korea and the book continues all the way to 1980s Japan. Mostly we follow a girl, Sunja, who was born in the Korean village in the 1930s. Her lifelong adventure (or curse) begins when she is still a young girl and falls in love with a mysterious business man. Their love is a very passionate one, but unfortunately the man cannot marry her and she is left alone and pregnant. Then a goodhearted Christian minister takes pity on Sunja, and promises to marry her and raise the unborn child as his own. Sunja accepts and the married couple moves to Japan to build their life in very difficult circumstances. There is poverty, sickness, racism, World War II, post-war survival and then the newer generations and the slow spreading of Western culture.
One of the main themes of Pachinko is the difficult relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese. In the book Sunja and her husband will have to accept that their rights in Japan are very different from the rights of native Japanese people. The Koreans are treated with a lot of prejudice and having Korean roots is something to hide, unless you want to be bullied and discriminated against. Everything about this was completely new information to me and it was very sad to read that the issue was still ongoing in the latter part of the book, when Sunja’s grandson is still in the risk of getting deported because he is not originally Japanese, despite not knowing any other country than Japan. The book follows very painfully this stigma that the family carries generation after generation and no amount of wealth seem to make a difference. It was very sad to read, very thought provoking. And, just as a disclaimer: I know nothing of this subject. I’m speaking of what I read in the book, not from actual experience.
Another big theme of Pachinko are the women. Sunja is the one we mostly follow but there are many others who also need to prove their resilience and resourcefulness over and over again, or face the consequences. Despite everything society and tradition might demand, in the end the women (just like men) need to choose if they want to live and survive to another day or not.
Despite the many difficult, horrible and violent moments, the women really made me fall in love with this book. Seeing the whole story of this troublesome family through the eyes of so many women was really rewarding. They all do what they must, even in the direst moments. Sometimes it works for the best, sometimes it leads to ruin. But they all follow a determination, whether it’s to support their children or make a life as an independent woman against tradition. It was very interesting also to read through a woman’s lifespan. We get to see Sunja as a little girl, young woman, middle aged woman and an old woman. Her character changes along the years, and in the end she is still also partly the same girl we meet in the beginning. I hope that is true in real life too. That if I get to live to old age, I can still recognize the young me and her dreams, despite all the changes that have happened with time.
Pachinko fills these prompts from the two Reading Challenges I’m doing:
A book recommended by someone famous (Helmet Reading Challenge)
I first came across Pachinko in actress Emma Watson’s bookclub on Goodreads, and later I noticed that Pachinko was also one of the books former President Barack Obama recommended in his 2019 book list. When these two recommend a book, one has to believe it’s worth reading. 🙂
A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club (Popsugar Reading Challenge)
Emma Watson’s bookclub had Pachinko as one of her recommended books to read in Goodreads. Sadly Emma no longer runs the bookclub, even though it still exists in the hands of other moderators.