Pachinko by Min Jin Lee : An Honest Review

History has failed us, but no matter.

Min Jin Lee

A tome of 500 plus pages, which begins in Yeongdo, Busan in 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea, Pachinko makes you ruminate with its opening sentence. I’ve quoted the sentence right at the top. I had to.

I read this sentence numerous times before progressing further. I came back and visited it time and again during the course of reading this poignant, heart-wrenching and calmly observant novel about Koreans in Japan -who never quite became Japanese.

Rarely do you find a historic novel which with its very first line captures the essence of what blazes through its pages. Reminding you each time, that an immigrant never really settles. Never finds a place that she can truly call home. Or, does she?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American writer, is the story of immigrants who struggle with their identities and life. Even after becoming Japanese in every possible manner, and camouflaging their Korean roots, they live in fear. Haunted by the ghosts of their past and challenges of the present.

Pachinko is also a story of a woman named Suja. In fact, this is where the story begins. Suja was born to a cleft-lipped, limping Hoonie –a fisherman with a heart of gold and a soft-spoken and docile Yangjin.

Suja’s childish innocence is cut short when she falls for a gangster, Hansu and gets pregnant. To hide a child born out of wedlock, she marries a kind-hearted pastor, Isak, on her mother’s insistence and moves out of the coastal village, the only world she knows. Away from a man who has broken her heart.

In Osaka, where her new life unfolds, at the home of her brother-in-law, she finds out that the Koreans are treated poorly and lead a miserable existence. It is here in this home, Sunja finds her first friend in her sister-in-law, the childless Kyunghee. The bond between these two women forms the backbone of the story. Their sisterhood emboldens them to tide over life’s hardships. Particularly after Isak’s death, when Suja is widowed with two sons. And the women turn to selling kimchi on the road to make a living.

What Suja doesn’t realize or uncovers later, is that Hansu never disappeared from her life. He was always watching over her.

Suja’s two sons, Noa and Mozasu take the story forward. Noa, academically brilliant, ambitious and assured of his heritage is devastated when he learns of his true lineage. He is the son of a gangster. A yazuka who was sponsoring his education. A man he had worshipped until then. Guilt-ridden, he gives up his education and finds refuge in a small Japanese town as a bookkeeper and severes all ties with his family.

Years later, when his mother pays him a visit, he commits suicide.

Mozasu on the other hand, through his hard work, flourishes as the owner of Pachinko (gambling) parlors. His son, Solomon has to go through a web of deceit and heartbreak before finding his way and joining his father’s business.

There are several other minor characters who add depth and provide a closer an intimate look at the immigrant experience.

The character-driven novel comes to a befitting end when Suja on visiting her husband’s grave learns that her son, Noa had been visiting his father’s grave, while living as a Japanese with his family.

There was consolation. The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned.

Min Jin Lee

What I Loved:

  • The tone.
    • Min Jin Lee employs a calm, at times distant, philosophical tone that works magic for this inter-generational drama.
  • Well-researched.
    • A historical novel must be rich with research and yet never be overbearing and drown the reader with facts and figures.
    • Pachinko nails this fine balance.
    • Kudos to the author for researching a vital yet often ignored or forgotten part of Korean-Japanese history.
  • Characters.
    • A brilliant cast of characters.
    • Each unique and different from the other enrich the plot.
    • I won’t forget Suja, Noa and Hansu for a long, long time.
    • I could feel them inhabiting my home, my world.

What I Hated:

  • Pachinko’s not a book that you will finish in one sitting.
    • If you’re looking for instant gratification, please give it a pass.
  • The pace acts against it.
    • Many might abandon this saga in between as nothing much happens in terms of plot twists.
    • But then, this is not a pacy thriller. It’s a work of literary fiction, which sheds light on an important chapter of history, which you as a discerning reader mustn’t miss.

Do I recommend this book?

Hell, yes!

Buy Pachinko on Amazon

What’s my rating on a scale of 1-5?


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