Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko chronicles a fictional Korean family’s life in Japan before World War II to the late 1980s.

Sunja is the lone surviving child of a couple who, in the early years of Japan’s colonization of Korea, manage to make a spare but decent living farming and taking in boarders.  While she is still a teenager, Sunja is smitten by a mysterious businessman and becomes pregnant.

Her situation as unwed mother would doom her to shame and poverty.  Her savior is a sickly minister who boards with them; when he recovers enough to travel, it’s his intent to move to Japan to help with a church there.  As he is kindly, Isak offers to marry Sunja and take her with him to Osaka to stay with his brother and sister-in-law.

So begins the family’s saga, in which their adopted country looks down on Koreans, and they are limited to the most menial and dangerous jobs.  Sunja and Isak’s sons, even though they are born in Japan, inhabit half-life identities and struggle to have successful lives in a system that is stacked against them.

Pachinko is a rambling story of struggle and perseverance, love and hate, discrimination and ignorance.  The main character Sunja thinks of herself as a plain country woman, but even she has amazing moments of clarity when survival is the main issue.  And survive she does, even when her family and circumstances cause her great heartbreak.

The novel offers outsiders’ perspectives of the societal upheavals that occurred in Japan from the post-war times through its economic boom years, and the harshness of never quite fitting in, even in the country of one’s birth.

The term pachinko refers an upright pinball type of machine that gained popularity in Japan in the 1940s, and is still popular.  Here’s an interesting article from the BBC about pachinko.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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