“History has failed us, but no matter.”
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing 2017) is a novel that has been on my physical TBR pile/cart for years. (It’s not the longest resident on that list, but it comes close.) I love family sagas, the chunkier the better, and this is a ridiculously well-done chunky family saga; I devoured it in two days. Now I’ve seen some folks complain about the number of characters and the length of this story that spans from 1910 to 1989, but I think those people just don’t read a lot of family sagas because Pachinko is one of the best.
The novel opens in 1910 in Busan, Korea. Hoonie is the only one of three sons to survive. Despite his cleft lip and twisted foot, he’s a hard worker. When the matchmaker makes the match, folks are surprised but not too much; times are hard, and Hoonie can offer a young woman stability. Yangjin finds more than stability with Hoonie, she finds love. Yangjin suffers through several miscarriages before delivering Sunja, who claims nearly all Hoonie’s heart before he dies when she’s 13.
Sunja was brought up to be a hard-worker and she toiled without complaint next to her mother to run a successful boardinghouse. She meets Hansu when she’s sixteen. The handsome older man delicately and diligently pursues her, taking her innocence and her heart. Only after he learns she’s pregnant does he tell her of his wife and children in Japan. And the secret that started on the forest floor will forever change Sunja’s life.
Not long after Sunja sends Hansu away, a sickly preacher arrives at the boarding house. He believes God wants him to marry Sunja and give her unborn child his name. Together, they travel to Japan where her son is born. She thinks Hansu is removed from her life even if not from her heart, but Sunja is wrong; Hansu is a powerful man and is never far. Sometimes lurking, sometimes longing, sometimes lingering – he is a constant.
The novel sings with family and loyalty and survival while beneath the surface, the political climate, a war, and the nervous condition of having one foot in Japan and one in Korea thrums. It’s a novel of immigrants, of comfort food, and finding home while bouncing about like a ball in a machine.
Pachinko was as addictive as Sunja’s sugar candy and the gambling game that came to define her family.
Read this book.