Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

5 of 5 stars
Published February 2017

Pachinko is a type of Japanese arcade game, similar I think to pinball with upright machines that have pins and bright colours, similar to the cover of this book, which is quite a pretty cover, I have to say. According to Wikipedia, it’s also a game that is used as a gambling machine and the small steel balls are rented to the players in these Pachinko Parlors like slot machines in a casino and the winners get the balls which are exchanged for prizes or money in a separate business because gambling for cash directly is illegal in Japan.

Life is a gamble, a crap shoot. You take chances. You rise to the top or you struggle to survive. Maybe an outside influence contrives to set you on a path to win or lose.  This is a story about a family that survives. It’s a multi generational saga, just the kind I really enjoy. It starts in Korea with a woman and her slow but genuine husband. They have a daughter, Sunja whom they love dearly. After the husband dies, the wife and daughter run a boarding house, barely making ends meet. The daughter falls in love with the slick and handsome Koh Hansu, and gets pregnant but it turns out he is married. She is shamed but another man comes to her rescue. A Korean Christian minister, Isak, is a guest who has been ill with tuberculosis and after Sunja and her mother nurse him back to health, he marries her to give the child a name and save her reputation. They move to Osaka to live with his brother and his wife where he grows to love her and the little boy, Noa and they have a son together, Mozasu. World War II has a devastating effect on the families and as we move into the post war years, we follow the lives of the two boys, both of whom become involved in the pachinko business.

I didn’t realize that Koreans who lived in Japan were treated very badly. The racism is appalling, with Koreans having little or no rights at all and looked upon as third or fourth class people. I can’t even say “citizens” because for much of the 20th century, they were not allowed to apply for Japanese citizenship even if they’d been born and raised there. Even to this day, Koreans in Japan don’t have a lot of equal rights or opportunities. The story focuses on Family,  on the Korean and Japanese cultures, Loyalty, the unpredictability of life and the effects of life choices, those choices that are gambles in the hope that they can make better lives for themselves and their families. It sweeps through most of the 20th century and is a really good story. As with most really long books, the first couple of generations’ worth of story is better than the later ones  which don’t have as much depth or detail but I still enjoyed it all.

The book is quite long and could have used some tighter editing. Sometimes the extraneous detail takes away from the emotion in the scene. Another point that I saw mentioned elsewhere is that we never see any death. All the characters over the decades that die, do so “off screen” or off page, if you will, and it’s referred to after the fact. It can be a bit jarring in one or two occurrences.  As with a lot of books that span many years and 3+ generations, the last generation  or two’s timeline seems to be short changed, with longer and longer gaps of time passing between chapters which are shorter and less detailed, pretty much just a “touch base” of an update.

I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway via Grand Central Publishing for an honest review, and honestly, I really liked it! It’s got all the elements I enjoy in a book. Multi generations of a family, well developed and interesting characters, a long and chunky book, a look into a culture with which I am unfamiliar.


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