Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.
So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
Description taken from Goodreads.
First, a disclaimer:
Somewhere between planning my third (second on TSW) blogoversary and reconciling with the idea that I’m slowly moving toward adult lit, I realized that a good chunk of the young-adult books I hold dear to my heart are the first books I read in the genre. There are several reasons for this. For one, these books are some of the most famous, most loved YA books out there (The Hunger Games, Legend, The Fault in Our Stars). For another, these also set precedence for YA as a whole. Even the books that aren’t household names had a significant impact on my literary worldview (Ready Player One, Enclave, Scarlet). If this will be relatively similar to my transfer into adult lit, I know I’ll be in good hands with Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.
So, because I’m just starting out, this won’t be a review in the traditional sense. With YA, I’m confident in my generalizations and expectations for the genre. With adult, I’m only just beginning to establish those ideas. With that in mind, this review will be more like my very first reviews. It’ll be broken down into two sections: what I loved and what I have questions about. This is because I hope to learn all that I can before raising criticism about the book. So, without further ado, here’s what I thought of this epic journey following one strong Korean family:
What I Loved
Last night, I attended a signing on the Pachinko tour, and it was mentioned that the historical aspect of the story was completely seamless. I’d have to agree. Out of all the books I’ve read, I can only recall a handful of other novels–and none in historical fiction–that felt so real. By the end, I could imagine that all of the characters in the story were real and that I was with them over the decades that this expansive novel takes place. Not a single one of the characters was portrayed to be any kind of perfect. From the beginning, we’re made aware of their faults and shortcomings, their greatest successes and worst failures, and we come to know a remarkable number of characters with a certain standard of intimacy.
And as much as I enjoyed getting to know each piece of Pachinko, what truly drew me in and left me in awe of the story was the character development. It serves as the primary vehicle for all the book’s major themes and grows with time.
In YA, it’s common to just see characters for brief snapshots of their lives. I’d estimate that the majority of YA novels that I’ve read take place in the span of less than a year. That’s why I was so excited to find that Twelve Days of Dash and Lily by the masterful David Levithan and Rachel Cohn allowed for readers to see a completely different side to Dash, Lily, and their relationship. It was a similar situation with Marie Lu’s novella Life Before Legend.
Granted, much can change in a year and teen-hood can be a very rocky time, but this short timeframe has its disadvantages along with its advantages. I would argue that in most cases, we can only know the characters to an extent simply due to the time constraints. It’s impossible to completely understand someone in real life in one day, and it’s much less (but still) impossible in a book. In the words of John Green, “some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
Pachinko showed me what a story can do when it’s told over lifetimes and generations. Because Pachinko follows the characters over such a long time, we get to see the births, deaths, fights, marriages, and everything in-between within the scope of this family. It was fascinating to watch as people changed as life went on, and perhaps even more fascinating to watch as people stayed the same. Lee took full advantage of this opportunity to share great insight into people, love, life, happiness, and race. Among all of these, what struck me the most and was distinctly different from YA was the sincere, in-depth look at Korean and Japanese culture.
Lee’s writing and research came together perfectly to create a novel that was thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would recommend it.
I don’t want to criticize anything yet because there are many things about it that I don’t understand or haven’t formed an opinion about yet. I think that, with time, more books, and rereads, it’ll be better for me to form a more concrete opinion then. Instead, I’ll write questions for future reference, and for this book, just one question that brings up two issues–pacing and the ending.
Does the ending bring together the whole of the story? Throughout Pachinko, which is broken down into three books, I didn’t feel like the pacing was off at all until I got to the third book. In the third book, the tone changed and the writing seemed more rushed than in the rest of the story. Unlike in the other books, I felt like I didn’t get closure with the characters and scenarios that were introduced or had continued from one of the other books. When I do a reread, I’d like to go through more thoroughly and examine how the characters change and what the ending means for each major player, especially Sunja.
I’m sure that I’ll come up with a more thorough review of this book as time goes on, but I’m glad to have read it and established it as one of my first books into adult fiction. For now, 4.5 stars.
Review for Free Food for Millionares soon to come!