A review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The building of worlds is a difficult thing. Especially when that world is a historical one. There is research to be done, tiny details to be got exactly right, events to be recounted and words to be weighted just so in order for the setting to come across as recognisably authentic even to people who have never been there before. It’s hard to create a world that is consistently vivid, believable through and through, yet in Pachinko, a sweeping multi-generational saga that explores the lives of Koreans in Japan, Min Jin Lee proves herself to have such skill in this department that I found myself submerged in her novel right from the opening lines.
Although it was published back in 2017, Pachinko has only recently come to my attention. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been looking out for literature about Korea recently; perhaps it’s one of those novels that just take a while for people to start talking about. Whatever it was, I arrived at it with high expectations – a dangerous place to begin. And as much as I found it absorbing and vivid, the kind of novel I was genuinely pleased to return to each day, throughout all its 530 pages I had the feeling that something was missing.
Opening in 1910, Pachinko traces the lives of four generations of the same family, first in South Korea, then in Japan. An exploration of immigration that seeks to navigate the many minefields involved in concepts like ‘exile’ and ‘home’, it is also a portrait of family relationships, of how we behave towards the people we are both forced to and choose to call our own. Taking us right through to 1989, the novel’s reach is impressive, yet at times I wondered if it wasn’t spreading itself a little too thin. Major events – both the Korean and Second World Wars, for example – became almost side events rather than major plot points, almost unheeded even by the characters themselves.
Instead, in the looming shadow of external forces such as war, famine, political injustice, Lee’s characters do what they do throughout the novel: continue to live. Particularly for Sunja, one of the central figures, life is often painful and incomprehensible, something to be endured rather than performed. Events follow one another with a devastating kind of logic and her entire life is shaped by external forces, whether human or higher, that help to influence the course of the storyline but, strangely, seem to have little effect on the woman herself. While Sunja, her mother and sister-in-law are undoubtedly ‘strong women’, supporting their family through years of hard manual labour, as literary characters I found them to be somehow lacking, simply representations of what a ‘strong woman’ should be. Rarely – if ever – does Lee let us into the inner thoughts and emotions of her characters, and in a novel that is so much about people I found this to be frustrating.
Although much has been made of the female characters in Pachinko, it was to the men – in particular the younger generations – that I found myself warming the most. I felt more invested in the story as it progressed, yet it’s difficult to say whether there was one character in particular who stood out for me. Noa, perhaps, was the one I was able to feel most for, desperate as he is to be Japanese and therefore ‘normal’, no longer an outsider in the country of his birth. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, we see Noa as a middle-aged man, married with four children, working in an industry as far removed from his broken-off literature studies as it is possible to be. Every lunchtime, we are told, he goes to a nearby restaurant to eat and read a few pages of a classic novel, the only moments in his entire life in which ‘he remembered who he was inside’.
Other figures like Koh Hansu, the older man with whom Sunja falls pregnant near the beginning of the novel and who acts as a kind of beneficent yet (it has to be said) creepy guardian throughout the remainder of the story, I found to be troubling, not least because of the lightness with which he is treated. Even in Hansu or the shadowy world of the yakuza (gangsters) we encounter stoicism and goodness, the two traits that seem irremediable in every single one of Lee’s characters.
Of course there is most likely a point to this: getting on with life – all the messy, glorious, convoluted chaos of it – is, in the end, the theme most central to Pachinko. While Sunja’s grandsons may go into the pachinko business, I suspect it is not for this reason alone that Min Jin Lee chose to title her book with the name of a slot-machine-like gambling game popular in Japan and Korea. Life, she seems to be saying, is itself a game of pachinko, each one of us a pinball being knocked from side to side, our courses given minor adjustments each day by the men who tinker with the machines. Running like an invisible thread throughout the novel is the suggestion that maybe, after all, we aren’t the players. Maybe we are the game.
As much as I found this metaphor oddly comforting and was able to see how the events of the novel reflected it – as, perhaps, does Lee’s decision not to delve into her characters’ inner lives – there were moments when I found myself longing for discord, for anguish, for true emotion, for a railing against the injustice in the world. There are so many rich themes in this novel, so many powerful and complex ideas, yet for me they all remained rocks buried too deep beneath the surface.
Having said all this, Pachinko was a novel that I did enjoy reading. As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Min Jin Lee proves herself extremely adept at building a world that is both believable and rewarding to spend time in. For this reason I expect I will remember Pachinko, and for anyone unfamiliar with the difficult relationship between Japan and Korea it is an eye-opening work of literature, an introduction to a convoluted history that can – and should – be explored further in novels like Anna Kim’s The Great Homecoming. A novel of great scope, rich imagination, immense detail and at times beautiful imagery, this is an absorbing and worthwhile read – just not quite the novel I expected it to be.