In each generation of the family at the center of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, individuals must decide if they are going to try to fight others’ expectations or become what people expect them to be. In other hands, this book might be about the triumph of individualism and determination. This novel, however, takes a harder look about how difficult it really is to break loose from parental expectations, cultural strictures, and racism. I found it incredibly moving because of its emotional honesty, but an abrupt ending makes me reluctant to want to recommend the book to other readers or even give it an unequivocal stamp of approval. Seriously, the book just ends. I suddenly found myself in the acknowledgements because I thought there had to be more pages to the story.
Pachinko opens around the turn of the twentieth century, introducing us to the parents of one of the main characters. At times, the novel reads like a family history; it was only missing the documentation. Things start to slow down in the 1920s, when Sunja (whose parents we just met) comes onto the stage. Sunja’s family runs a boarding house on Yeongdo in what is now South Korea. They’re poor but managing. They might have carried on with the boarding house if it weren’t for Koh Hansu and, later, Baek Isak. Hansu seduces Sunja. He likes her innocence, but not in an icky, Lolita way. Rather, he is used to women who make their living as mistresses or hostesses, who ask for money and gifts in exchange for companionship and sex. When Sunja becomes pregnant and learns that Hansu is married, she surprises him by breaking up with him. An unwed pregnant woman is shocking to the morality of her village, but she refuses to take the easy route offered by Hansu. Instead, she marries a kind-hearted pastor (Isak) who learns about her situation and wants to save her from social ruin.
The rest of the novel follows Sunja’s family for the next sixty-plus years. We watch them migrate to Osaka, where they face implacable racism from the Japanese. We see them weather the Second World War. After that catastrophe, we witness Sunja’s sons rise in the pachinko industry and even become rich. Each generation’s struggle is to try and better themselves, either through education or money, to leave behind the stigma of being Korean in Japan. But no matter how hard they try, none of the family is able to succeed when they try to break out of what other people expect them to be. For example, Sunja’s son, Mozasu, becomes rich at pachinko only because it’s considered a job for crooks—which is what some Japanese people expect Koreans to be. Mozasu’s brother, who ironically also works in pachinko, fights hard against being seen as just another Korean in Japan, with tragic results.
What I liked most about Pachinko (apart from the setting) was the determination of the female characters. Sunja, in particular, bucks tradition, suffers for it, and yet keeps going. I found her deeply admirable. In comparison to the men in this novel, the women seem to be able to get their way through stubbornness. When one way is barred to them, they find another. They are never as successful as the men, but they don’t fall as far when circumstances turn against them as they invariable do for the men. Their lives are hard, full of pain and sorrow, but their determination means that they make permanent, though small, steps up the ladder to success.
If they can look past the stunningly abrupt ending, I think readers who like sinking into the lives of family members through the generations and/or are very interested in the Korean experience will enjoy Pachinko. Personally, the ending soured the whole experience for me. I feel cheated out of a resolution.