Author – Min Jin Lee.
Publisher – Apollo (an imprint of Head of Zeus)
Number of Pages – 537
Pachinko has been quite tough for me to review because it is quite easy to hate it for the very reasons you love other books like it, and I will explain what I mean.
If you’ve ever attended a writing course or workshop, some basic lessons in writing fiction are – show don’t tell, avoid information dumping or introduce suspense wisely. When this is done masterfully in books it gets applauded. Pachinko does none of these things they teach on writing good fiction. It tells and tells and tells and keeps telling. Then dumps information and keeps dumping till you are tired. And just as you are on the brink of flinging the book away in frustration, a massive shocker happens without warning and you forget everything you know and just continue. It is a long novel and even while flunking all the rules, Min Jin Lee but manages to tell the story effortlessly.
I liked Pachinko for the simple reason that it shed light on a bit of modern history that I knew absolutely nothing about i.e the history of the Koreans and Japanese from around the 1900’s. The suffering that Koreans fled from and the inhumane conditions they had to endure when they escaped to Japan plus the fact that when they were eventually able to find their feet mostly by running pachinko parlours which the Japanese looked down on, they couldn’t return home as the country they left had now been divided into two. I don’t know what the situation is now but people were refused Japanese citizenship, even those of the fourth generation of Koreans whose parents and they likewise were born and had lived there all their lives.
If you like the generational set of Homegoing you might like Pachinko too. The difference is that while a chapter ends with each generation in Homegoing, Pachinko follows the story of one generation to the fourth and Lee intertwines their stories through poverty, fate, faith, friendship and family. And as always, the last generation sort of ends up in America and has an awakening. Haha. Don’t we always end up in America?
In as much as Pachinko is full of shocking moments throughout the history it covers, Lee does not care for putting her reader in suspense. She writes it as it pops into her head. You may be reading about a mother reuniting with her son after so long and the next line reads –
That evening, Noa’s shot himself in the head.
There’s no build up, no immediate reason, just pop. At one point reading this, I shut the book with a bang like wait what just happened?
And then she just casually moves to another unrelated sentence after this or worse still a whole new chapter that has fast-forwarded eight years. It’s insane.
I didn’t feel connected to a lot of characters. For a book that actively spans four generations, you can imagine there were already a lot of characters. There were some that just felt like appendages which is alright because life is like that, but I felt she didn’t need to develop them at all if she was going to eventually dump them. For instance, Noriko the prostitute or the young worker that Sunja met at Hansu’s mansion when she went looking for her son or Kim who found Sunja a job or the gay police officer. It felt like she was desperate to have LGBT representation in the book. If you want a gay character then discuss him as a whole human being. You can’t leave us wondering why he fell off the radar just like that considering you made him an important friend of a principal character.
I observed a bit of what I call an editorial flaw. There were a few sentences that didn’t transition properly. For instance, in chapter 15 where a sentence begins with
Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn. Meanwhile, just less than three sentences preceding that, there’s an actual quote from Hansu that says “just study, it’s the kind of power no one can take from you.”
This happened a few times. And sometimes, it felt like maybe some things were lost in translation but it turns out it isn’t a translated book. It was first written in English.
There were some coincidences that felt a bit forced but I thought about it again and how life can indeed be like that. So I excused that.
Overall though, I enjoyed reading Pachinko. Historical fiction is a favourite sub-genre of fiction for me. I didn’t first see the correlation of the title with the story but after finishing one can deduce. Pachinko, a kind of arcade game popular amongst the Koreans that depends on luck (call it some form of gambling) mirrors Sunja’s life and that of her family. Her survival, and redemption etc.
I thought Hansu was the most annoying, creepiest literature character ever. The sight of his name alone on a page upset me so much. How is someone so full of himself? Urghh.