BOOK REVIEW – Pachinko


Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee. Published in 2017, Pachinko is an epic historical fiction novel following a Korean family that immigrates to Japan.

In 1883, in the little island fishing village of Yeongdo, which is a ferry ride from Busan, an aging fisherman and his wife take in lodgers to make a little more money. They have three sons, but only one, Hoonie, who has a cleft lip and twisted foot, survives to adulthood. Because of his deformities, Hoonie is considered ineligible for marriage. When he is 27, Japan annexes Korea, and many families are left destitute and without food. Due to their prudent habits, Hoonie’s family’s situation is comparatively more stable, and a matchmaker arranges a marriage between Hoonie and Yangjin, the daughter of a poor farmer who had lost everything in the colonial conquest. Hoonie and Yangjin take over the lodging house upon the passing of Hoonie’s parents.

In the mid 1910s, Yangjin and Hoonie have a daughter named Sunja. After her thirteenth birthday, she is raised by her mother Yangjin, her father Hoonie having died from tuberculosis.

The novel jumps in time, and in Book II, Sunja raises her two children, Noa (Hansu’s son), and Mozasu (Isak’s son). While Noa resembles Hansu in appearance, he is similar in personality to Isak, and he seeks a quiet life of learning, reading, and academia. Shortly after Mozasu is born, a member of Isak’s church is caught reciting the Lord’s Prayer when they were supposed to be worshiping the emperor, and Isak is sent to prison. Despite Yoseb’s resistance, Sunja begins to work in the market, selling kimchi that she and Kyunghee make at home. Their small business is profitable, but as Japan enters the Second World War and ingredients grow scarce, they struggle to make money. Sunja is eventually approached by the owner of a restaurant, Kim Changho, who pays her and Kyunghee to make kimchi in his restaurant daily, providing them with financial security. A dying Isak is eventually released from prison, and he is able to briefly reunite with his family before dying.

A few years later, on the eve of the restaurant’s closure, Sunja is approached by Hansu, who reveals that he is the actual owner of the restaurant and has been manipulating her family for years, having tracked Sunja down after she sold her watch. He arranges for her to spend the rest of the war in the countryside with Kyunghee and her children and for Yoseb to wait the rest of the war out working at a factory in Nagasaki. During her time at the farm, Hansu also reunites Sunja with her mother, Yangjin, and eventually returns a permanently crippled Yoseb to the family after he is horrifically burned during the bombings. The Baek family eventually return to Osaka where Noa and Mozasu resume their studies.

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