‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

December 22, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening…. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

From the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017

Stunning indeed. The place is Yeongdo, Busan, Korea.

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

This plain sentence follows the one quoted in the  title of this review. We go at once from a sentiment of cosmic significance to a statment of almost painful plainness.

From this ordinary decision, made by ordinary people, springs an entire universe of consequences. The fisherman and his wife Yangjin have a daughter, Sunja. The fisherman, Hoonie, soon dies of tuberculosis. Yangjin and Sunja, who is at that time thirteen years old, are left to run the boarding establishment as best they can.

And then….

Nowadays, many works of fiction label themselves (or their publishers label them) novels of suspense. And yet Pachinko, a more or less traditional family saga, whose narrative marches , at a steady and unshowy pace,  through the decades, is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. This might be because I cared so deeply about the fate of the characters.

And what a fate, what a fate.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was beyond cruel. Life was made horribly difficult; the Koreans were debased and humiliated. Innocent and good people had their lives upended and ruined.

It seemed as if the occupation and the war had changed everyone, and now the war in Korea was making things worse. Once-tenderhearted people seemed wary and tough. There was innocence left only in the smallest children.

Still, having no other recourse, making use of what meager resources they could find, they persevered.

This was a hard book for me to review. I’ve written about numerous meritorious books in this space. But Pachinko stands apart. I have not been moved in quite this way by a work of fiction in a very long time. Superlatives fail me. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel, deserving of the highest praise. Congratulations, Min Jin Lee, for an astonishing achievement. And thank you.

Min Jin Lee

 

 

 

 

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