First Impressions – “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

Author: Min Jin Lee
Language: English
Country: United States of America
Genre: Historical fiction, Domestic fiction
Published: February 7, 2017
Publisher: Apollo, Head of Zeus
Nominations: National Book Award for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction, winner of the Medici Book Club Prize, and one of the New York Times’ “Ten Best Books of 2017.” A New York Times bestseller, Pachinko was also one of the “Ten Best Books” of the year for BBC and the New York Public Library, and a “best international fiction” pick for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In total, it was on over seventy-five best books of the year lists, including NPR, PBS, and CNN, and it was a selection for Now Read This , the joint book club of PBS NewsHour


I first met this copy of the book at a second hand bookshop. As someone who had started exploring Korean culture quite recently, the book quite intrigued me – the front cover and the back cover, equally – and I picked it up, only to put it back down at the thought of all the books I had back home that I still had to get around to reading. As I was leaving, I ran back, tossed my logic out the window, and picked up a copy of this book.

And I must say, I am very, very glad to have bought this book.

When I started writing this post, I was done with the first of the three parts of this book. As I finished the second part of the booo, I realised that I would genuinely be sad when this story was over. Finally, as I write this, I have finished the book, from cover to cover, within 9 hours. And, I’m very pleased to report, that this book is right up there, along with Papillon by Henri Charrière and The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in my list of top 10 books of all time.

This is the story of Sunja, the daughter of a crippled fisherman, who runs a guesthouse with his wife. Sunja, living a simple and content life, helping her mother run the guesthouse after her father’s death, falls in love with a yakuza, who gets her pregnant. He then tells her he’s already married – and she refuses to let him buy her out.

In the face of ruin, she gets an offer of marriage from a gentle pastor, traveling from Korea to Japan, who had taken shelter in the boardinghouse on the way. She accepts, and before long, is on her way to Japan, with her new husband, to start a new life in a hostile country with unfamiliar faces. Her struggles, and her decisions direct the course of her life – and the lives of all those around her.

As much as this is Sunja’s story, this is also the story of the Korean – Japanese community. This is the story of the struggle of native Koreans during the Japanese occupation of Korea; of those Koreans who had to leave Korea and travel to Japan; of those Koreans who tried to make a life in a society which ostracized them; of those Koreans who were born and raised in Japan, who knew more Japanese than Korean, but who could never truly call either nation as their motherland; of those Koreans who struggled through the injustices and the hardships of war, poverty, discrimination and powerlessness.

And even more so, it’s a story about humans living in a society. It’s about those who are in power, and those who are discriminated against. It’s about wanting a better life for yourself and your family, making difficult choices between options that aren’t any better than the other. It’s about love and its consequences. It’s about what it means to be a woman, or a man, or a patriot, or a theist. It’s about life, and what it means to live.

The discrimination that the Koreans faced in Japan has repeated itself over and over again throughout history – across gender, communities, ethnicity, religion, race, language and eras. A lot of the atrocities faced by Koreans during this time has been brushed away or simply ‘lost’ over time, with some willing to pretend like it never happened in the first place. What this book does is outline the life of an ordinary, poor family over the span of a 100 years, scaling four generations – and it is brilliant in its simplicity.

This isn’t about the rich and the powerful. This isn’t about the kings and queens, the rulers of nations. This isn’t revisiting a history already been told, but acknowledging a story that should have never been erased from time – the story of a common woman who faced everything life had to throw at her. And life threw at her everything that was possible – deception, harrasment, separation, damnation, loss, and everything in between.

Women must suffer. It’s a often quoted line throughout the book, and a recurring theme of the lives of the women in this story, and even more so of women in general. There are various iterations of this throughout various cultures – in mine, it is It is a curse to be born a woman, for the reason that a woman’s life is that of suffering, of trial and cruelty. Yanjin suffers through her many miscarriages, and her fate of being married to a less able man. Sunja suffers due to her love for a man she didn’t know was married. Kyunghee suffers for being unable to bear her husband a child. Totoyama suffers due to her younger child’s mental disabilities. Each and every woman, Korean or Japanese, suffers her own fate, having strayed from the norm of society by their own doing, or by the actions of those they depended on. Some suffer it silently, some bear it with resilience, and others let it destroy them beyond recognition.

The men also suffer their own fates – Baek Isak and Hoonie suffer due to their health, Yoseb due to his ill-fated choices, Hansu due to his connections, Noa due to his parentage, Mosazu due to his loss, Solomon due to his roots. They suffer silently, some behind the veneer of pride, others openly; some until their death, while others learn to accept their fate and grow beyond it.

There is another thing worth mentioning about this book – its simple language, and its balanced narration. The language is simple, and doesn’t deviate the reader’s attention from the story it conveys. A lot of Korean and Japanese is sprinkled throughout the book – ahjumma, abuji, oppa and oishi desu, shoganai, sodesu ne. As someone who grew up being fascinated by Japanese and picked up on some phrases over time, and as someone who has been exposed to a small part of Korean culture for nearly a year now, most of these phrases were easy to understand, and brought a sense of familiarity to the cultures the story took place in. At the same time, the omniscient narrator tells the story with as little bias as possible, with no agenda of their own, apart from the purpose narrating a story that the world needs to hear.

I usually don’t put in the nominations a book has been awarded right in the beginning, but the impact of this book is so wide-spread and powerful that I felt that I had to bring attention to it. It deserves all the nominations and Awards it has received so far, as it tells not only the story of one person, or one culture or one race – it tells all of our stories, across races, boundaries and centuries.

I love this book for multiple reasons. I love this book for telling a story that everyone can relate to, at some level – having grandparents who have fought in the war, being the children of immigrants who have left their native country, facing discrimination and suffering injustice on the basis of gender, colour, ethnicity or geography, or just trying to get through the life we’ve been handed, one day at a time. I love the simple, straightforward language, the introduction into a culture and an Era whose stories need to be heard by more people, and the authenticity of each and every character you come across throughout Sunja’s journey.

Concluding, I’d like to say that this book is beautiful, and everyone should experience it once, at least.

First impressions: Easy to understand language, unbiased and gripping narration with no unnecessary frills. The honest story of a honest woman who tried her best to do the right thing by the ones who depended on her, while never letting go of her own worth.

My recommendation: If you enjoy world history and long epics, this book is for you. If you’re looking for the warm, fuzzy feeling in your chest of having met a friend rather than a book, you should definitely read Pachinko. It’s a beautiful story, and I would honestly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about history, the lives of women and long family epics.

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