Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is not a large story. But somehow it is. It’s the story of a single family, an ethnically Korean family that lives in Japan. The story starts in Korea, with Sunja. Sunja falls in love with an older man named Koh Hansu. Their brief affair leads to her pregnancy, but Hansu can’t marry Sunja since he already has a wife and two daughters in Japan. Sunja faces the disgrace of her child being born out of wedlock until a minister named Baek Isak comes along. He decides to marry her and give the child the Baek name. Sunja marries Isak and moves to Japan.
Once Isak, a native of Pyongyang, and Sunja, born and raised in Yeongdo, move to Osaka to live with Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife Kyungee. She gives birth to Noa and later Mozasu, her son with Isak. The Baek family is established in Japan shortly before the second world war, and Pachinko follows them throughout history. The only overarching plot is that of the Baek family and their growth as they find themselves in a country that doesn’t want them there. Pachinko takes little glimpses into the family’s lives, with a few years of separation between vignettes.
The way that Lee decided to structure the book can be a little confusing at first, and more than once I found myself needing to backtrack to keep track of how much time had passed. Additionally, there’s usually a shift in perspective to some extent as a new vignette starts. That lead me to need a few moments to regain my bearings every time the story changed perspective. This is especially true in later parts of the book when there are some chapters that focus on people outside of the Baek family.
Still, the unusual formatting is something that I feel I can get past. It’s worth it to have to figure out a few unfamiliar structural decisions to get the privilege of reading Pachinko. I can hardly believe that this is only Lee’s second book, and I frankly can’t wait to see what she puts out next.
Every character, even minor ones, feel so fleshed out and human. I sometimes forgot that this was a work of historical fiction. Lee said in an interview in the back of the book that she had been working on what would become Pachinko for over a decade. In that time, it’s clear that she did her research and created a little world that fits right into reality.
The realism of Pachinko is rarely cheery. It’s dark and uncomfortable, but viscerally real. Lee makes no attempt to sugar-coat the realities of prejudice. Lee said that she interviewed Koreans while she was living in Tokyo so that she could portray that experience. It ultimately led to her scrapping the first manuscript for her book completely. But I feel that Lee reached through the pages of her book to tug directly on my heartstrings.
Really, this is a book that I feel I experienced more than I consumed. It’s difficult to boil this book down to a synopsis, because can you boil a person’s life down to a synopsis and a description? We follow Sunja from her birth into her seventies, and we see the trials and joys and suffering of all of those years. I can say without hesitation that I would recommend Pachinko to someone that wants to get to know a family in all of their beauty and flaws.