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Korea went through a lot in the 20th century. It was colonized by Japan for decades, then split into two due to the interests of foreign powers. Its people died from war and from deprivation, and many of them left, scattering to other lands.
A large number wound up in Japan during Imperial Japanese rule, and while some repatriated, many remained, despite explicit, legal discrimination — the U.S., as it turns out, does not have a monopoly on xenophobia.
This is a lot of history to pack into one novel, but Min Jin Lee is nothing if not ambitious. Pachinko (Grand Central, 485 pp., ***½ out of four stars), her follow-up to her lovely debut Free Food for Millionaires, spans the better part of the century, from 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea, until 1989. It follows multiple generations of one ethnically Korean family in its never-ending search for a comfortable place in the world.
There are several protagonists, but the backbone is a steady, quietly principled woman named Sunja. Her unplanned teen pregnancy and subsequent marriage to Presbyterian minister Baek Isak take her from her parents’ boardinghouse in a small fishing village near Busan to her in-laws’ home in a Korean enclave of Osaka, where she raises sons Noa and Mozasu.
Before her departure, she gets this piece of advice from a woman in her village: “Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering….no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard.”
Author Min Jin Lee. (Photo: Elena Seibert)
Pessimistic, to say the least, but this turns out to be true, not just for Sunja, but for almost everyone in the Baek family (also called the Boku or the Bando family — not even their name is a certainty in Japan). Lee is an obvious fan of classic English literature, and she uses omniscient narration and a large cast of characters to create a social novel in the Dickensian vein.
Her protagonists struggle with the whims of history, with survival and acceptance in a land that treats even native-born Koreans as foreigners — “For people like us, home doesn’t exist,” notes Koh Hansu, a shadowy guardian of the Baek family, with immense wealth of vaguely disreputable origin, the only kind available to Koreans in Japan. They also swallow what seems like more than their fair share of tragedy over eight decades.
The novel is frequently heartbreaking — its scope doesn’t deter attachment to individual characters, and when bad things happen, the swift pacing and wide-angle view make them seem even more brutal, if at times too sudden. This is the rare 500-page novel that would benefit from some extra flesh, particularly in the last third.
Like many Koreans in Japan, the Baek family gets into the pachinko business, a scorned line of work that “gave off a strong odor of poverty and criminality,” at least to the Japanese.
Pachinko is an unfair game — a gambler’s pinball with strong house odds — one that lends itself rather easily to metaphors about life. “There could only be a few winners and a lot of losers,” one character reflects. “And yet, we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”
Steph Cha is author of the Juniper Song mysteries.
Goodreads reviews for Pachinko