Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this ambitious historical novel, chronicling four generations of a Korean family and covering most of the 20th century, Min Jin Lee explores complex issues of Korean identity shaped by war, Japanese colonialism and displacement.

In 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea, a girl, Sunja, is born to a peasant couple, Hoonie and Yanjin. She is the couple's first child to survive; three previous infants had sadly died. Sunja grows into a fine young woman, but when she becomes romantically involved with Koh Hansu, things become complicated. She falls pregnant, but naively thinks Hansu will marry her. Hansu, who is a yazuka (roughly translated, a crime boss) is married and has a family in Japan. When Sunja finds this out, she refuses to see him again. Pregnant, without a husband, what is she to do? A boarder with the family, a Christian minister named Isak, steps in with an offer. He will marry Sunja and take responsibility for the child, but she must move with him to Japan, where he does missionary work.

The first half of the novel concentrates on Sunja's life in Japan and her struggles to survive in a country where Koreans are treated as second class citizens. After her first son, Noa, is born, she has a second son to Isak, named Mozasu.  When Isak dies after mistreatment in a Japanese prison near the end of the Second World War (his Christian missionary work makes him appear as a radical to the authorities), Sunja tries to eke out a living by selling her homemade kimchi. 

The second half of the novel concentrates on the adult lives of Noa and Mozasu. The narrative leaps along here, many years passing with each chapter, giving the story the feel of a runaway train. It seems to go in all directions and you never know what's going to happen next. Many of the characters' lives become emotionally messy and fraught. There are shock suicides, infidelities, scenes of promiscuous sex and underhand business dealings (Koreans had limited work opportunities in Japan). Noa studies English literature, but like his brother, Mozasu, eventually makes all of his money by running pachinko parlours, places almost similar to our pokie venues.

Pachinko makes for an absorbing reading experience. The narrative is powered along by a broad cast of fascinating and complex characters. The story also benefits from much obvious research, giving the book an authentic ring (Min Jin wrote the book while living in Japan and interviewed many Japanese Koreans.) The novel doesn't resolve the fractured and divided psyches of the main characters, offering no neat psychological shorthand for their personal traumas, but rather puts on the table with emotional rawness the difficulties of being a third or fourth generation Korean, exiled from the mother country.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. Published by Head of Zeus. ISBN:  9781786691361 RRP: $32.99

(Released 1st February, 2017)

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