Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is just the kind of historical fiction I love. It’s a great story about decent people living in a time and place I don’t know a lot about. In this case, the setting for most of the book is Japan, from the 1930s to the 1980s, and the characters are a family of Korean Christians.
The story begins in Korea, with a young woman named Sunja. Her mother is a widow who gets by running a boardinghouse in their small village. The story then shifts to Osaka, Japan, where Sunja lives with her husband, his brother, and his brother’s wife. The family struggles with money, and with persecution in various forms. Sunja has two sons, and the struggles follow them down the generations, although they are able to find some ways to navigate the system. (I’m avoiding specifics because a lot of the pleasure in this book is watching the story unfold.)
The book’s title comes from the pinball-type game popular in Japan, often used for gambling. Some of the characters work in pachinko parlors, and one of the things they do is nudge the pins slightly each day so that the owner maintains an advantage. That got me thinking of how the system these characters are up against often include tiny nudges that keep them from being quite equal. There’s the presumption that Koreans are criminals. There’s the requirement to register. There’s the language barrier. Yet the nudges can go in the other direction, as the characters learn to work the system. Sometimes that’s simply by persevering in hard work, as Sunja does. Sometimes it’s about accepting help from otherwise distasteful sources. Sometimes (a lot of the time) it’s about accepting the system as it is. This is not a book about revolution.
The historical backdrop includes many big events of the 20th century: World War II, the bombing of Nagasaki, the division of Korea, the AIDS crisis. But they’re not the focus—the book doesn’t read like a history lessons in big world events. These events appear as they touch the characters. We hear about Nagasaki, but not Hiroshima, for instance.
And that focus on character is one of the book’s pleasures (and ends up being related to its minor flaws). For most of the novel, Sunja is the heart of the story. Everything that happens touches her directly, and we see her react to all of the events. She is a compelling and complex character, a good woman plagued by guilt, always determined to do what must be done to care for her family but equally determined to stand by her principles. In the latter third or so of the book, however, other characters are in the foreground, and sometimes the narrative spins a little too far away from the core story. For instance, there’s a long tangent about the family of a friend of one of Sunja’s sons.
That one flaw is not enough to ruin the book, however. It’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed and would happily recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and multi-generational family sagas.