Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This novel follows struggles of members of a Korean family from 1910 through to 1989.
Sunja was the daughter of a well-liked Korean man who had a harelip and a crippled foot. He felt lucky to be married to a peasant girl because of his disfigurement. Sunja’s family rented a house which they ran as an inn. Because of hard times during the Japanese occupation they struggled, but remained honest in their business which resulted in a good reputation for the inn.
When the father, who was still relatively young, died of TB, the mother with the help of Sunja and her sisters, continued running the Inn. Sunja innocently began a relationship with Hansu, a wealthy Japanese fish broker, and although both loved each other, when she discovered she was pregnant and that Hansu was married with a family, she broke off the relationship, even though he wanted to provide for her and her mother.
Isak, a handsome young pastor traveling to Japan, arrived at the inn’s door near death from tuberculosis. He was taken in by the inn, and cared for until he recovered. In Isak’s thankfulness for their care, he decided to spare the family from the shame that would result from Sunja’s pregnancy becoming known, and when he recovered, he married her. They then moved to Japan where Isak had been promised a job in a Protestant church. In Osaka, they lived with Isak’s brother, Yoseb.
In Japan, Koreans faced racial discrimination and were forced to live in ghettos of poverty. Yoseb and his wife had a very small dwelling in a crowded Korean ghetto. The Korean church was very poor and Isak’s job paid practically nothing, so life became a struggle.
Sunja sold a very expensive watch that had been given to her by Hansu, so she could pay the debt Yoseb had incurred by paying Isak’s and Sunja’s passage to Japan. The expensive watch enabled weatthy Hansu to discover where Sunja’s and his child, a baby boy were living, and he secretly tries to make their lives better. Sunja later had another boy by Isak who was named Mozasu.
The storyline follows the lives of these two brothers, as well as the other members of the family, first with their struggles with poverty and discrimination, and then with the wealth they began to generate by the businesses they created. Pachinko, as in the title, is a Japanese form of pinball gambling. It is extremely popular and generates more money per year than all of the Japanese auto companies combined. It became the main source of this family’s wealth.
I found this novel very engaging. It touched all of the high and low points of conflict that most families confront. The storyline is punctuated with unexpected events that change the dynamics of the family.
The novel spends a lot of time describing the difficult conditions Koreans living in Japan had to contend with. I was completely unaware of the number of Koreans who, during the 20th Century, moved to Japan and how, even after several generations born there, Japan still considered those people immigrants and discriminated against them.
Pachinko was a very enjoyable novel to read. The storyline had me rushing to the end, then I found myself kicking myself for having read so fast because it was over.
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