Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Picked as best new book choices for 2017 in The Daily Mail, Stylist, Mail on Sunday, Buzzfeed, ELLE, Book Riot.
There are at least two generations too many in this multi-generational tale; it would benefit from losing the first chapter perhaps, and definitely the last 20% or so. But while that may sound a little damning, without that extra weight this would be a near perfect book. It’s elegant and skilful, thoughtful and refined, and for the insight into the Korean experience in Japan, and a depressing and hopeless examination of Motherhood, this epic is worth reading.
It starts in Korea in 1910 with an ageing fisherman and his wife who become boarding house keepers, but the main plot follows their granddaughter Sunja. Sunja falls pregnant out of wedlock and her honour is saved by a visiting church pastor who asks her to come to Japan with him as his wife. We then follow Sunja’s life, and the lives of her extended family, through World War Two and beyond - stretching as far as her Grandson returning to work in Japan in 1989 after attending university in New York.
Books set in other times, other places, other worlds are always fascinating, and there is a unique and horrifying aspect to the racism suffered by ethnic Korean immigrants in Japan that make this especially enlightening. It was something I knew nothing about. In Pachinko, the Korean characters are unwelcome “guests” in the place they were born, constantly under threat of deportation back to a country that - post Korean War and division - no longer really exists.
But parent/child relationships are the broken heart of this book. Some characters give every second of their lives struggling to pave the way for their children, others indulge their own desires at their children’s expense, but all end up either damaging their offspring irrevocably or at least blamed by them for everything that goes wrong. In a multi-generational novel there are plenty of parent/child pairs to bear this out - even in one of the least emotionally dramatic the daughter cries on her mother’s deathbed “I don’t, I don’t... I won’t blame you” - through force of will alone is the mother not held responsible for the daughter’s failures.
But despite the fascinating history and the subtle relationships the overarching problem remains. With a multi-generational book you have to love each generation as much as the last to keep pushing through the years to the end. To me there was only one character I truly cared about - my interest in Sunja extended to her relationship with her mother and children, but beyond that my stamina faded. The characters and stories in the last 5th of the book were interesting enough, but, without Sunja at their heart, the novel’s end felt a long time coming. It deserves all the good reviews it’s inevitably going to get, but with 13 chapters less is could have been something better still.
Published: 23rd Feb 2017, Head of Zeus