Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is largely a game of chance, a combination of a pinball and a slot machine, with balls subtly manipulated behind the scenes by owners of the parlors in which it is played. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like what it defines—pachinko. Popular in Japan after the Second World War, pachinko parlors were often run by Korean immigrants who had no other choice and were often called mobsters, no matter how honest they might have been. But, considering the prejudice against them, being considered Korean might have been just as bad as being considered a criminal.

Author Min Jin Lee titled her multigenerational novel Pachinko and, like much of the book, that was a stroke of genius. The book chronicles four generations of a Korean family who become immigrants in Japan and whose lives are like games of chance, one person’s actions sparking a reaction in another, then another, with powerful forces always maintaining some level of control. 
But it’s also a book about human strength, family bonds, love, determination, and hope. It’s the type of book that makes a reader just want to settle down and soak up each page, reveling in the vivid character development, story, and sense of place.
The book begins:

History has failed us, but no matter.

Min Jin Lee is speaking of Koreans, and her story starts at the turn of the twentieth century, with a fisherman and his wife, who are never named, and their son Hoonie, born with a cleft palate and a limp, who comes of age just as Japan annexes Korea. And, for the rest of the book, Hoonie and his daughter, grandsons, and great grandson are pachinko balls, creating their personal history as they have to leave Korea but are never allowed to assimilate into Japan. Shoved into a ghetto, denied passports or the ability to work in any other than low-level jobs, the family nevertheless survives and never loses their spirit.

The thread holding the family, and the story, together in Sunja. Hoonie’s daughter, whose brief affair with a handsome stranger she meets in the market, forces her to marry the sweet, educated, but impoverished minister Isak. Their son, Noa, takes after the biological father he never knew exists, but reveres the loving man he thinks of as father. Yoseb, his uncle, and Kyanghee, his aunt, who have to children of their own, are like second parents. Sunja and Kyanghee become as close as sisters. A second son, Mozasu, completes the little family. 

But always in the wings in Honsu, the stranger, an extremely wealthy gangster, who watches over Sunja and her family, like something between a godfather and a sinister uncle. Manipulating their lives to suit him. 
Through war, death, birth, and the vagaries of fate, sexism and racism, Sunja and Kyanghee build lives for themselves and those they love. Minor characters—some Korean, some Japanese, some American, show that history and culture shape us but only confine us if we allow it

The book took her thirty years to write, and her dedication is apparent in every page. It’s a thick read—479 pages in the paperback version—but it’s a book you really don’t want to end.   

 Pat Prijatel 

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