Reader rating 8/10
“Pachinko” is a novel about a Korean family who emigrate to Japan. It covers the period from 1910 to 1989, and tells the story of four generations of the family. It’s a novel about racism and oppression. It’s a novel about identity. It’s a novel about what it means to be Korean, and, in particular, a Zainichi Korean who lived in Japan during the twentieth century.
It’s full of drama; a child conceived out of wedlock; several premature deaths, both violent and from natural causes; success and failure; love and hate.
The women are the most interesting characters, and the most resilient in hardship. The central character, Sunja, is the one who keeps the family solvent when circumstances are at their worst. Sunja’s sister-in-law, Kyunghee, becomes her best friend. While Sunja is homely in appearance, Kyunghee is beautiful. The pair are shown maintaining the family, raising the children, and nurturing the men. On several occasions throughout the novel, one of the women will remind the other that ‘women suffer’. This is not said in tones of complaint but in tones of acceptance; this is how it is, and we get on and live our lives regardless. It’s plainly intended to point the reader to the source of the women’s strength.
Much of the action is by the men, and their emotions and motivations often felt obscure to me. In fact, they seem to be emotionally illiterate. This could be deliberate, but personally I found it rather frustrating. I don’t think most men are ignorant of their emotions, they just perceive them differently from women.
The novel is written in plain English; it is not ‘fine writing’. It is, however, effective. Some of the scenes are conjured up vividly. Even so, I wonder whether there could be less explanation. I know most readers will know little. if anything, of Korean or Japanese life, but couldn’t this be told descriptively rather than didactically?
The novel kept my attention by the events; it’s well plotted. However, it was only towards the end that I started to feel emotionally involved. The last scene is very moving, with Sunja grieving in a cemetery before returning to her best friend, Kyunghee.
This is an important novel because of its subject matter. On one level it is a powerful polemic against racial prejudice and discrimination. At a deeper level it looks at the harm such prejudice can cause through the psychological pain caused by the inability to live an authentic life. Perhaps most importantly, the novel gives a voice to a group – the Zainichi Koreans – whose sufferings are not widely known.
This is a book with flaws, but it’s still well worth reading. You may feel tempted to give up halfway through, but I would encourage you to persist – it’s worth the effort. And despite the flaws, I’m rating it 8/10