Patchinko by Min Jin Lee
A sweeping generational saga following a family from Korea to Japan during the 1900s.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is about a young woman, whose connections to two different men lead her on an unforeseen path from Korea to Japan. Lee’s book has won many awards and nominations and it was a National Book Award Finalist for 2017.
My Rating: 4/5
When Sunja begins a relationship with Hansu, not knowing he is married, she winds up pregnant and puts her family in danger of scandal. She is saved by Isak, a young minister, who offers to marry her and claim the baby as his own. When his job moves them to Japan, Sunja’s life begins to change. In a time when Korea is under Japanese rule, it is not a good time to be Korean in Japan, but Sunja and Isak manage to make a life for themselves, before a incident leaves their lives in upheaval. The novel follows the course of Sunja’s and her family’s lives living as foreigners in Japan.
This book is peopled with so many characters. Over the course of the 1900s, we follow Sunja and her mother and crippled father, then later Sunja and her secret lover, Hansu, who also happens to be a member of the Yakuza. When Sunja later marries Isak, a minister, the story chronicles her life as a mother of two sons, then follows her son’s lives and family, and ends with the life of Sunja’s grandchildren.
This family saga is full of ups and downs. Lee delves into many difficult topics, including abuse, the violence of war, death, suicide, and race tensions. Throughout the novel, the sufferings that women face takes the foreground. “Women are made to suffer,” is repeated by multiple characters and for a variety of reasons, including lost of family members, family estrangement, and racial discrimination.
This novel’s story is very compelling, and I experienced a variety of emotions over the course of reading it. Lee is an excellent storyteller and her chronicling of the racial tensions between the Koreans and Japanese is handled deftly. The attention paid to the importance of family support also drew me in. I felt deeply invested in Sunja’s family and the fates of all her relatives.
There are many serious topics that make up this novel, particularly suicide and familial estrangement. Many characters suffer depression or deep pain, which means a plethora of trigger warnings throughout. However, the overall message seems to be one of hope and forgiveness, which keeps the book from sinking too deeply into sadness.
There is also a lot of history imparted here by Lee, most of which covers the annexation of Korea by Japan, the Japanese involvement in WWII and what that meant for Koreans, especially those living in Japan, and the years that follow, with the separation of Korea into two. The larger theme of the novel seems to be about home and what that is. Though the characters are Koreans and born of Koreans, many are born in Japan, making them Japanese citizens by today’s standards, but at the time they are treated as foreigners and second-class citizens. Many characters struggle with the knowledge that they are outsiders, not knowing where they truly belong when the place they call home rejects them so violently. It’s definitely a deep, thoughtful layer in the book and one that I particularly enjoyed learning about. If you’re into history, this is a great choice.
Literary Value: 5/5
I love the detail that Lee provides throughout this story. Every character is fleshed out and the reader gets to spend significant time with them to learn about them more personally. And Lee does not scrimp on the number of characters, either. She has woven a fabric of interconnected lives that really engrosses the reader in the time period, in the culture, and in the family dynamics. This is really a stellar work of fiction and anyone who has an interest in character study should read this book, because it’s really a perfect example of character building. Sunja is most assuredly the center of this story and all other characters orbit around her, but many characters also have peripheral characters that orbit them, so it’s truly a constellation of people and it’s just fascinating and very realistic.
I greatly enjoyed Lee’s gentle, lilting prose. While reading this book, it feels like you’re looking through a soft-edged window into the past and the story is achingly beautiful. Though it has many sad parts, the novel as a whole generally has an overall hopeful outlook and I think it inspires a strong sense of the importance of family and of community.
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
My overall interest in this book stems from my personal interest in Korean culture. I have really fallen in love with this culture and try to read works by Korean writers, watch Korean film, and eat Korean cuisine. I picked up this book because it seemed the perfect fit and would help me learn more about this culture.
I did enjoy reading the book. I thought that Sunja was an excellent character and I loved watching her grow and evolve as a person. I didn’t mind that this book was slower paced – it is a generational saga, so I expected it to mimic the slow change of real life. This book is hard hitting in some areas and then cools down for a while and, overall, it’s a very pleasant journey.
The only thing that keeps me from scoring this book higher in this section is that it is very sad at times and the bittersweet nature of the book as a whole is something that, while I can appreciate on a literary level, I don’t generally enjoy reading personally. I like my books happy, and while there are happy moments in this book, the overarching theme is about the suffering of women throughout their life and being considered a foreigner in your own home, the culmination of which is quite bleak and that’s not something that appeals to me when I read.
Cover Art Rating: 5/5
I have the paperback of this book, so the cover is different from the hardback edition, but I will judge them both. I think they are both equally beautiful covers and both represent the culture and tone of the book. The hardback cover has a lighter tone and it looks very elegant. It’s also made to look like a Pachinko machine, which is one of the main elements in the novel, so it’s an excellent choice to highlight this on the cover. I love the colors used and the overall look is just very pretty and catches the eye.
I love the paperback edition, too. Though this cover uses cool tones, blues and greys, it also provides a painterly image of a Korean woman and a glimpse of a woman and two boys, most likely Sunja and her two children. I like that the environment being shown is referencing Japan, with it’s red sun, because much of the novel takes place in Japan. It’s a beautiful double image and I love that though it depicts a woman, it’s more abstract so I don’t get the sense that I’m being shown what Sunja is supposed to look like.
I love both covers and I think they’re both perfect choices to represent the story.
Overall Rating: 4/5
I really enjoyed this book. It was such an immersive story and I truly got a sense for this family and its place in the world. I love Sunja as a character and her family is so interesting and reading their journey that spans two countries was amazing. I love Lee’s storytelling abilities. She is detailed without being overbearing and her character development is superb.
If you love stories about the connectedness of family, this book is perfect. You get to learn about Sunja’s family and all their relations intimately and their place in history is fascinating. A lot of the book focuses on the history of the time, which takes place before and after the Korean War, spanning a good portion of the 1900s. I learned so much and the history did not dry out the story at all, which is a huge plus.
I would definitely recommend this book, especially to any historical fiction fans!
Open discussion below!
Let me know what you think! If you’ve read Pachinko, share your thoughts! If you haven’t, are you going to read it or pass on this one? Tell me all about it in the comments. Keep up the reading!