Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published in America by Grand Central Publishing, today, the 7th February 2017. UK publication on the 23rd February 2017.

Featured in WorldReads: South Korea

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife. Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story. Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Pachinko is a longer book than I usually choose to read, but it swept past as I was fascinated by details of Sunja's life as a Korean woman in Japan. Thousands of Koreans emigrated to Japan in the early part of the twentieth century and made lives there even though they were very much looked down upon and discriminated against by the Japanese. Korean women's attitudes and expectations were (still are?) completely different to my own so I loved being able to learn more about their culture by immersing myself in this novel. Min Jin Lee is an observant writer and I felt that her historical details were both accurately researched and believably portrayed.

We follow Sunja's life and that of her family over several generations which makes this book quite the epic. I was moved by the family's eternal striving for better lives for themselves and especially for their children. This pattern repeats across the generations as is particularly poignant as we see the obstacles thrown in their way. Natural events and wartime disasters play a part, but the majority of their misfortune seems to result from remaining second class citizens in Japan. Even children born and raised in Japan are forced to register as Korean, the result of which leaves them excluded from much of Japanese society, employment, housing and personal relationships.

Lee uses the gambling game of pachinko (a type of pinball) as employment for one of Sunja's sons, Mosaszu, but also as an accurate metaphor for the lives of our central family. Mosaszu manipulates his pachinko machines every day by subtly tapping pins in and out of alignments so the gamblers can never learn a particular machine well enough to guarantee winning, regardless of how much effort (and money) they put in. Life repeatedly plays the same trick on Sunja and her family.

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Books by Min Jin Lee / Historical fiction / Books from South Korea


  1. I'm from the Orient but still could not get enough of reading novels from/about Asia. The culture from different walks of life is truly fascinating. I might have to check this out.

    1. This novel certainly illuminates a very different culture to mine. I really felt for the thousands of Koreans in Japan, especially the 2nd and 3rd generations who are still not allowed to be Japanese even though they have lived their whole lives in that country.

  2. There's so much culture and history in this novel, that I just have to read it. Those are two of my favourite elements to novels. It's so saddening that Japanese people had elements of their identity taken away from them as well. :(

    1. Min Jin Lee gives us valuable insights into Japanese and Korean cultures. I think you would enjoy this book :-)