When Sunja is born in the 1910s in Yeongdo, a small fishing village, in what is now South Korea, she has no expectation of ever leaving her hometown. Her parents, including her kindly but disabled father Hoonie, run a boardinghouse that largely caters to local fishermen. It seems inevitable that Sunja, as her parents’ only surviving child, will also spend her entire life in Yeongdo running the family boardinghouse.
However, as a teenager, Sunja migrates to Japan to start a new life, as many Koreans did during this time when Korea was a Japanese colony. This decision, made largely to avoid the intense shame she will face in her hometown for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and connected to marriage to a virtual stranger to save face, touches off a family saga spanning decades that examines the experiences of Zainichi, Japan’s Korean population. As with many Zainichi, Sunja and her family find themselves experiencing intense discrimination in Japan and must navigate finding their way in a country that is technically home but doesn’t feel like it.
I’ve been wanting to read this acclaimed novel for a while, but the dual impetus of its TV adaptation being released this year on Apple TV and our adult book club having it scheduled for later this year made me finally take the jump. And I am glad I did! I really enjoyed this thought-provoking family saga.
Ultimately, this is a story that far transcends Sunja–it also follows her children and a grandchild–but she is the heart of the story, and my favorite part of the book involved her childhood and then her life in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. World War II is a perennial favorite topic at our library (and something I certainly read a lot of as both fiction and nonfiction), but the civilian experience in Japan is often overlooked. In Pachinko, it has an added layer of complexity in that Sunja and her family have no real vested interest in whether or not Japan wins, though they are decidedly interested in not becoming casualties as bombs start to rain down upon them.
This isn’t a fast-paced story by any means, but it is an engrossing one. I had a hard time putting it down, and I really appreciated how vividly that Lee brings her historical settings to life. I’ve seen some people complain that the narration seems a bit impersonal and distant from the characters, which is true, but I think that is an intentional choice on Lee’s part. For me, the muted narration worked really well and actually aided one of the more significantly shocking moments in the narrative in being so poignant and stunning simply because it was so understated.
The muted narration also doesn’t prevent the novel from delving deep into its complex characters, and the varying ways that Sunja and her descendants grapple with feeling excluded from both Japanese and Korean society was especially well done. Lee isn’t interested in editorializing about how the characters should feel or react to their uneasy status in Japan, and the book acknowledges that none of the options open to them–assimilating into Japanese society by hiding their Korean origins, remaining set apart and looked down upon as Zainichi, returning to a homeland that is now suspicious of them, or leaving Asia altogether–are without their own complications.
I’d initially been a little disappointed when the focus shifted more to her family since I’d found Sunja such a fascinating protagonist. I tend to be less enchanted with the more modern characters in family sagas, especially when their default role seems to be unraveling a family mystery, and I assumed that Pachinko would follow the same route.
I was relieved that this is not the case–its focus on the younger members of the family is all in service of further fleshing out its themes about Zainichi identity and is really quite essential to the story. It also incorporates the perspective of Japanese characters, which makes for an interesting counterpoint on Japanese identity as these characters also sometimes struggle with their role in the country’s highly rigid society despite not being as openly disadvantaged as the Korean characters.
If there is one aspect of the book that I didn’t particularly enjoy, it is the subplot concerning the lover she has as a teenager. I found him the least interesting character of all. I can understand his place within the story, and he forms an essential element of the plot, so I wouldn’t say it is out of place, but ultimately, I much preferred reading about Sunja than him. I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but I am happy to discuss this further in the comments!
I highly recommend this haunting, thoughtful book to anyone who enjoys well-written, well-researched historical fiction about complex, interesting characters and family dynamics. It handles the broader historical side of the narrative as well as it does the more personal family aspects.
Recommended for those who enjoy the work of Andrea Levy and Eugenia Kim.
*Also available as an ebook and audiobook in Libby
Have you read Pachinko? What’s your favorite family saga? What are you reading? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this book or to place it on hold.