glimpse of the oppressive and humble lives

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This New York Times bestseller gives us a glimpse of the oppressive and humble lives of the Koreans in the pre-World War I era.

When you see life from different perspectives and viewpoints, your understanding and perception of life changes. Your view of concepts such as family, humanity, and integrity undergoes a shift. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee depicts this shift through a multi-generational story of a Korean family, their life under the Japanese regime, and their hope to find a home in an unjust world. This New York Times bestseller dives straight into the oppressive and humble lives of the Koreans in the pre-World War I era, which in fact, are better days than what is to come next as the story unfolds.

Pachinko begins with the story of Hoonie, a fisherman’s son, who along with his wife Yangjin runs a small lodge in Yeongdo, a district in Busan. Born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot, Hoonie is a simple man respected by fellow villagers for his conduct and demeanour. Endowed with an undefeated spirit, Hoonie never lets his disability come in the way of his responsibilities and appreciation for life. Yangjin, Hoonie’s dutiful wife, is a quiet and kind person who loves her husband for who he is. The early chapters of the book paint a picture of a family, who learns how to live happily despite troubled times.

Their struggle, as a couple, begins when they try to become parents. Because of Yangjin’s health, their first three babies die prematurely. Their days of sorrow come to an end when their daughter Sujna is born. This is the point when the story shifts to the next generation. It focuses on Sujna’s growing up years, from adolescence to teenage, amid social chaos. Through the character of Sujna, the author has depicted the reality of growing up as a girl in a world torn by wars.

Pachinko is a long story told with such grace and literary brilliance that it is difficult to put it down.

Ahead of her age, Sujna is diligent and caring like her mother, and honest and self-conscious like his father. After Hoonie’s death, Sujna continues to help her mother run the lodge, until one day when her life comes to a standstill. Left alone by a 35-year-old man she loves, Sujna gets pregnant at the age of 16 with her son Noa. At this critical juncture of her life, Baek Isak, a pastor, comes to her rescue. He marries her and takes her to Japan to start a new life away from shame and guilt. Such moments in the story highlight an important truth of life—adversity does not exist without triumph.

Living as immigrants in Japan, Sunja and Baek try to stick to the values they were raised with but fail to teach the same lessons to their children, Noa and Mozasu. Both children take different routes in life, making decisions for a better future. Yet, misfortune continues to find them. Even after changing their Korean identities, the family suffers at the hands of discrimination and injustice.

As the story moves to the post-World War II era, the family banks on the ‘Pachinko games’ to earn a living. Traditionally, the Japanese play Pachinko to change their destiny overnight, like enthusiasts play poker chips in the casinos of Las Vegas. This makes Pachinko the perfect metaphorical title for the novel as it is about a family trying to transform their ill-fate, against all odds.

As Noa and Mozasu try to become one with the Japanese culture and tradition, they still can’t leave their Korean ancestry behind. As the novel reaches its end, the fate of each character collapses with more tragedies and revelations that put the family honour on thin ice.

What makes Pachinko more of an experience is the author’s creative craft and deep research that breathe life into the otherwise ordinary characters. Lee’s ability to weave a fine narrative drawing from the rich history of the two cultures makes it easy to build a connection with the story and its characters. Pachinko is a long story told with such grace and literary brilliance that it is difficult to put it down. As vivid as a dream and as elusive as a folk song, Pachinko evokes the emotions of happiness, sorrow, anger, despair, sometimes all at once, through the timeless and unbreakable bonds of family.

Edited by Shalini K Sharma


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