Through the story of four generations of characters, Min Jin Lee explores timeless and universal subjects like belonging and identity. Her central topic, though, is the lives of Koreans in Japan between 1933 and the end of the century.
In Korea, Sunja and her mother hold a respected guest house. But a shameful event threatens their business and their reasonably comfortable lives. Indeed, Sunja's first experience of love ends in disillusion and despair when the rich man who impregnated her confesses to already being married in Japan. Her honour is saved by a young Christian pastor who marries her and takes her to Japan. The description of their struggles through the years to fit into a country that despises them sadly still resonates with immigration situations all over the world.
The research for this book took many years, which is most likely why it feels like such a complete read. Min Jin Lee lived in Tokyo and interviewed many Korean-Japanese people, giving the book its truly genuine voice. In this novel, each character faces different difficulties and proves themselves incredibly resourceful, but no matter how hard they try or how rich they become, they will always be foreigners. The repression is shocking and the Korean answer - resilience and perseverance - is both admirable and sad. Their considerable input to Japanese economy and society were not recognised at all and their fragile status individually impacts their quest for identity. Having these personal stories meeting history should open our eyes to the sensitive and modern question of immigration.
Min Jin Lee doesn't stop with one hot and modern topic. She also highlights the hard lives of women suffering for husbands and children. Sunja is warned by her mother before she marries: “Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. […] but no matter what, always expects suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.” But through her main character, Sunja, Min Jin Lee still paints a beautiful portrait of motherhood.
Pachinko is a fascinating family saga, so skilfully written that Min Jin Lee's talent easily compares to classic authors. Her characters will stay with me forever, though, more importantly, so will this stunning book's values.