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Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko begins with the sentence "History has failed us, but no matter", setting the scene for the entire book. It is a historical family saga spanning five generations throughout the twentieth century, starting in the South Korean region of Busan, and finishing in Japan. The book follows the lives of one Korean family as they suffer colonization, discrimination, racism, poverty and the hardships of war. The name pachinko comes from the popular Japanese pinball game, and serves as a metaphor for Korean migrants in Japan, caught in a seemingly random conflict. There was always hope, but as with the pachinko machines in the novel, someone was always making little adjustments to make sure they never won.

The story begins with Sunja, the daughter of the owner of a South Korean boarding house who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The father of the child is called Hansu: he is a rich, Korean man – married and living in Japan. Sunja agrees to marry a kind and gentle pastor (Isak), and they move to Osaka to start a new life together with her child (Noa). The family struggle to make ends meet but refuse to take handouts from Hansu, or anyone else for that matter. Sunja and Isak have a second child (Mozasu) and the story follows the lives of the two boys – with opposite personalities – who both end up working in the pachinko business. Mozasu's son (Solomon) subsequently takes centre stage, getting an international education in the US and coming to terms with his own identity as a Korean migrant. Sunja continues to play an important role throughout the book.

The book is about families, memories, war, class, immigration, identity and culture. It's about ordinary people facing the extra-ordinary and somehow surviving as best they can. It's also about women and their resilience. As the author, Min Jin herself has said "I am acknowledging the physicality and beauty of working-class immigrant working women."

As a migrant in Asia myself and as someone who has lived in Korea for three years, the book has a particular resonance with me. I understand what it is like to be a minority with poor language comprehension, but more importantly I am reminded how utterly grateful and privileged I am for not having suffered the hardship and atrocities that Sunja and her family went through.

Written in third person omniscient, the narrator knows the viewpoint of each character at all times, which seems the most appropriate style for a community narrative. And while the tone is mostly serious and somber throughout, there are moments of joy - highlighting how the smallest of things can bring happiness.

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