BOOK REVIEW: Pachinko by Jin Min Lee – January 2018

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

The 2017 novel Pachinko is one of the most satisfying and compelling reads I’ve had in a long time. All the reviewers are agreed, it’s the ultimate family saga, a novel on the traditional model that’s addictive and un-put-down-able, moving, informative, and marvelously well-written. It belongs to a genre—the immigrant novel—in the offing for some time now, that, with Pachinko, comes gloriously into its own. Pachinko belongs to the East Asian branch of the family. Among authors of Chinese descent, readers may be familiar with Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), and Ha Jin (A Free Life), and among authors of Indian or Pakistani descent, with Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni (The Mistress of Spices), Monica Ali (Brick Lane), Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss), and Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies). More recently there’s the Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose dazzling novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2016. Now, with the appearance of Jin Min Lee, the Korean novel of immigration is on the map. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, it’s not about emigration to the U.S., or, as in the case of Monica Ali, the U. K. It tells the story of three generations of Koreans during the first half of the 20th century who emigrate from Korea to Japan before the Second World War. They are allowed to work but universally looked down on and treated as second class citizens, barely human in the eyes of many Japanese.

But their refugee status, though important, is not the central feature of their lives, nor is living in World War II Japan, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though one of the characters is horribly maimed by fire after the second nuclear bombing. Instead it’s the struggle to survive and the strength of family ties that rivet our attention, and because of this, Pachinko has a universal quality. As you’re reading it, you forget you’re not Korean or Japanese; you just see what the characters see, feel what they feel. Though thoroughly grounded in time and place, the novel feels as if it could take place any time, anywhere.

For this reason everything one might say about it sounds like a cliché. It’s heavily dependent on a plot that’s full of twists and turns while remaining completely plausible. Lee secures our attention and keeps it on a tight leash throughout. Her characters are complex, sympathetic, and highly individuated. They surprise us from time to time; we’re invested in all of them. The details of their lives as boardinghouse keepers, farmers, cooks, businessmen, street vendors, and in one case, a gangster, are skillfully realized. Reading about them is like being at a really good movie you wish would go on forever. Everything that happens is vivid, believable, and emotionally gripping. And the writing is superb. That’s all I’ll say. To tell you the plot would either spoil it or make it sound dull, which it’s not.

In case you don’t know what the word “pachinko” means—I didn’t, and the author never really bothers to explain—it refers to a Japanese game that’s roughly a cross between a vertical pinball machine and a slot machine. Pachinko can be just an arcade game, but I gathered that more commonly it’s a form of gambling. Two of the characters earn their living running pachinko parlors because, at least in one case, it’s the only way he can make money in a country where Koreans are shunned. Not surprisingly, most of the characters want to return to their homeland—some had come originally from North Korea and had migrated south before moving to Japan. They long for Pyongyang. But conditions in Korea during and after the war are terrible. They can’t go back, mainly for economic and political reasons—there’s no work and the communists are killing people right and left—and partly because returned immigrants are no longer regarded as true Koreans.

Jin Min Lee has written another book, a best-seller, called Free Food for Millionaires, and I’m going to read it, whatever it’s about. But you should read Pachinko. It’s long. Take it on a plane trip or on vacation. Or, jump right in and you will be happy for quite some time.~