by Fran Withrow
Sometimes I am in the mood for a good long saga, one that can draw me in so deeply I look up with a jolt to realize I am actually here in my house in Richmond rather than in the setting of the story. Such a masterpiece is “Pachinko.” Though a hefty tome at 480 pages, I tore through it, waking up in the night to read more, and I turned the last page with a sigh of regret.
“Pachinko,” which was 30 years in the making, chronicles the lives of four generations of a Korean family during the years 1910-1989. The book is rich in history: Lee obviously did a huge amount of research, weaving the political and cultural climate of the area seamlessly into a fascinating account of the lives of this family.
The story begins with Hoonie, born with a cleft palate and a clubfoot in Korea (no North or South back then). He marries, and dotes on his beloved daughter, Sunja. Though the family is poor, they are content. In 1932 Sunja becomes pregnant by Hansu, who is rich but married. The tubercular Isak, a compassionate minister who is traveling through town, kindly marries her. He takes Sunja with him to Japan, and raises her son as his own.
Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and the Koreans who fled to Japan to escape the hardships of their own land during this time faced deep discrimination. Sunja and her husband Isak end up living with her husband’s brother and his wife. There they are persecuted not only for being Koreans, but also for their religious faith.
Throughout the next 50 years, Sunja and her family face hardship, intolerance, and disaster. They struggle to find their way in this harsh and unforgiving environment. Sunja’s boys, Noa and Mosazu, are vastly different in temperament and in interests, but Sunja’s fierce love for them keeps her determined to do anything she can to support them and the rest of her family.
Sunja eventually, and with displeasure, reconnects with her oldest son’s father, Hansu. He is a wealthy, shady businessman who runs a gambling empire based on pachinko, a Japanese pinball game. Hansu desperately wants to help support their intellectual son Noa, but Sunja is a proud woman and refuses. Their relationship is complicated, and their tangled past is eventually revealed to Noa, altering the course of his life. Can he find it in his heart to forgive his parents for keeping this secret from him? How does this news affect his younger brother, Mosazu? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
In addition to being a darn good tale, this story will make you ponder more about racism, about what makes us different and how we are the same, and about the meaning and limitations of love and forgiveness. It will make you think about the sacrifices we make to save face, to save our families, and to save ourselves.
And it will make you hope fervently that Lee doesn’t wait 30 years to publish something else.
by Min Jin Lee
Hatchette Book Group