Pachinko

May 9, 2018

 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee  

 

A 2017 National Book Award Finalist, Pachinko is the epic story of four generations of a Korean family, centered around Sunja, who is an only child of a poor fisherman when the book begins. Sunja's father was born with a club foot and cleft lip, and they have scraped by running a boarding house for fishermen. One day at the market, Sunja meets Hanso, a much older fish broker, and they begin a relationship. A few months later, he is elated when she tells him she is pregnant at only 16 years of age to his 37, but she is deflated when he tells her that although he is thrilled, he can't marry her because he is already married. He offers to keep her as his mistress, but Sunja is humiliated and flees. Luckily, staying at their boarding house is a young man on his way to Japan where he has secured a post as a Christian minister. He has admired the kind and hardworking Sunja, and he offers to marry her, knowing her condition, that neither she, her baby, nor her family should suffer the shame of an unwed teenage pregnancy.

 

Sunja and Isak immigrate to Japan where they move in with Isak's brother and where Sunja's son Noa is born. A few years later, Sunja and Isak's son Mozasu follows. As the depression hits, Isak is taken into prison with one of his parishioners, where he remains for the next few years. With him in prison and the economy in tatters, Sunja and her sister in law begin selling kimchi to keep them afloat. They are offered an exclusive contract with a popular restaurant, supplying all the kimchi the restaurant needs, and only after Isak returns home to die, does Hanso reveal that he is the owner of the restaurant and the one who facilitated their hire.

 

Sunja wants to keep Hanso out of their life, but as conditions worsen and Sunja's brother in law is injured and can't work, Hanso finds work and a place to live in the country for Sunja and her family. As Noa becomes an adult, he longs to go to college, but Sunja can't afford to send him, and for the first time, she asks Hanso for his help, which he willingly provides. During his final year, Noa finds out that Hanso, a man recognizable as a Japanese Korean mobster, is his real father, and the revelation is so shocking and so horrible to him that he drops out of school and cuts himself off from his family.

 

Sunja's younger son, Mozasu has left high school and is working in a Pachinko parlor, a kind of pinball arcade for adult men. He is successful there, and over the years, comes to own several parlors himself. Although he had looked down on Mozasu for working Pachinko, Noa ends up working Pachinko himself in another part of Japan. They both marry and the Pachinko industry supports their children as they grow.

 

This book taught me much about the treatment of Korean immigrants to Japan, which I knew nothing about, and is a fantastic examination of how hard it can be to be a foreigner, especially one who is discriminated against. It was also a beautiful examination of the parent/child relationship across multiple generations, with many instances of the parents making great sacrifices, both physical and of the heart, to see their children succeed. It was poignant and deep. I loved this book so very very much!

 

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