Skip to main content

Book Review: Pachinko, Min Jee Lee

Rebekah has an M.A. in History. Their primary focus is on the culture and literature of Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean.

About the Author

Min Jin Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to Queens, New York when she was seven years old. She graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. Lee was subsequently inducted into the Bronx Science Hall of Fame. She majored in history at Yale College, attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for two years before becoming a full-time writer in 1996. Her awards include the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction (Lee, 2022)

She got the idea for Pachinko in 1989, the year the story ends. After attending a guest lecture series at Yale as a junior, she became inspired by the plight of the Korean diaspora, particularly those living in Japan. In 2007, she moved to Tokyo for her husband's work, and there had the chance to interview and research for Pachinko for five years (Lee, 2017).

Pachinko received strong reviews and is on the "Best Fiction of 2017" lists from multiple sources, and named by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017. Pachinko was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. In 2018, Apple Inc announced it had obtained screen rights of Pachinko to develop a television series, which will be released in 2022.

book-review-pachinko-min-jee-lee

Summary

A multi-generational story about displaced Koreans on the brink of war, the main focus is on Sunja, the daughter of a boarding house keeper, and the repercussions of her love affair with Koh Hansu, a shady businessman. Beginning in 1910 and ending in 1989, the reader is swept up in an omniscient, third-person story from the very beginning. Sunja, the only child of a well-loved, physically disabled man from her village, is hard-working and honest. When the Japanese annex Korea, at first nothing changes too much; Sunja and her mother Yangjin continue keeping renters at their boarding house, and do well for themselves.

Then Sunja has a run-in with local Japanese boys, and Koh Hansu steps in. What begins now is a whirlwind romance that can only end in tragedy. When Sunja realizes she is pregnant, Hansu promises to take care of her and their child, but he cannot marry her; he already has a Japanese wife and three daughters in Japan. When he tries to console her, Sunja pushes him away and vows never to speak to him again, and though he tries to convince her otherwise, respects her wishes for the time being. Not sure what to do, Yangjin confides in the young minister, Baek Isak, staying at their boarding house. Isak, sickly and kind, offers to marry Sunja to save her embarrassment, but she would need to move to Japan with him.

Sunja departs with her new husband to live with his brother and sister-in-law in Osaka. Together they build a life, but Sunja soon realizes that she will never be free of Hansu, nor will the stain of his involvement ever be erased from her life.

The cover of the edition I have was the Book of the Month selection, with jacket design by Anne Twomey and jacket photograph by Tom Hallman. The beautiful, subtle colors of greens, blues, and gold do very little to lighten the content of the book within.

What I Liked

The scope of this novel is astounding. The prose was lyrical and succinct while still giving you all the information you need. The writing was direct, and did not dwell overlong in each situation or scenario. Every single character was real, and the narrator did not shy away from the gritty truth. For me, this book was a page turner and each chapter ended on a cliffhanger that made me want to keep reading more. My favorite characters were hands down Baek Isak and Koh Hansu, who were very much two sides to the same coin.

The author did a fantastic job really getting into the plight of Koreans during Japanese occupation, through the end of World War II and beyond. Even as someone with a degree in history who studied Japanese culture extensively, this novel was my first real glimpse into this particular side of history (I am a medievalist, not modern historian, so WWI and WWII are beyond my interests, usually). Her knowledge and ability to research and write a gripping tale is unparalleled.

I did very much enjoy watching Solomon and Phoebe's interactions with Solomon's family, and how very differently these two people from the same generation turned out. Phoebe, a Korean whose family emigrated to the United States, spoke better Korean than Solomon, who grew up in Japan. Phoebe had a much more distant relationship with her family's culture than Solomon, though Koreans were treated much worse by the Japanese than, indicated by the novel, in America. Koreans in Japan continued leading a relatively traditional lifestyle, and this is seen especially in the way Solomon's elder family members thought of Phoebe who never had homecooked Korean food. I would have loved to read the history of both families side by side, even had it made this book twice as long.

Pachinko sparked my curiosity about this time period and race relations in East Asia. Because the story ends the year I was born, it throws so much into perspective that this history was not that long ago. Then again, the same can be said with so much tragic history in our world. If nothing else, this novel spurred me to do some more research into an area of history I largely ignore, not because it's irrelevant, but because it is beyond my scope as a historian. The novel shows gender roles and class relations at a microlevel, and it is done wonderfully, and furthermore shows how choices made by older generations inevitably influence future generations for years.

What I Didn't Like

Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, I did not like this book. While I enjoyed it as I read it, and I am being truthful when I say it was a page turner, it was a page-turner in the way you can't look away from a disaster. In the way that tragedy enthralls us, so did Pachinko to me as a reader. It was that train crash or building fire that you watch from a distance, hand over your heart and wishing it was not happening, but unable to do anything about it.

There was no happiness in this book. The moments of peace and happiness were so fleeting, that I became numb to them. Perhaps this is what the author intended; after all she was not writing a romance and real life does not always come with happy endings, either. She did a fantastic job showing the reality of life, but as a novel, even historical novels, I want to see something that makes me happy, that fulfills me. Sunja's pride irritated me, Yoseb's misogyny grated on me, Noa's weakness bothered me, and Solomon's resignation frustrated me. Ironically, Koh Hansu was the only honest character, and I liked him at each and every turn, Isak was the only 'good' character and he had the most tragic story of all. I thought Mozasu was the only good person to come out of all that hardship, only to be slapped in the face by his son, a Columbia graduate, throwing everything back at him. Even at the end, when I thought Yangjin was a pure person that I cared for deeply, stung Sanju with the most hurtful things a mother could say to her daughter, and to be honest, at that point I almost stopped reading this book.

Obviously, in real life, I would be mad at the situation more than the individuals living in hardship, and I am. But there were so many issues I had with the choices the characters made that kept me from being happy for them even when something good did occur. I could make a bulleted list of all the exact things that made me so mad I had to stop reading, but I won't. There were no tragic heroes in this novel, because there were no heroes. I had no one to root for. Furthermore, the narrator's neutral observation of the characters and situations made it difficult for me to feel anything except irritation.

Scroll to Continue

Final Thoughts and Lingering Questions

Ultimately, I can't say if I would recommend this book. At work the other day, a patron asked me a very common question - what are you reading/have you just finished. I said, Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. She asked me about it and I found myself very hard-pressed to say anything positive about the book. I've read tragic stories, I've read stories I didn't like, but Pachinko topped everything.

Truth be told as well, I've been in a pretty mentally bad place lately, so maybe my thoughts on the book have been skewed because it did not give me a release from my own mind. Maybe when I'm in a better spot I will try to read Pachinko again. It was an easy book to read for the prose and narration, but difficult to get through because of the content. There were few graphic scenes, which don't bother me in general, but it definitely did not shy away from sex, disease, and mistreatment.

To me, reading this book was like watching the Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. And at least Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki, which never fails to make me sob endlessly, had a happy ending.

However, all this being said, my opinion is not the end-all. Pachinko was a National Book Award Finalist and became very popular, meaning that there are plenty of readers who did find it enjoyable. I've provided a link to it above, but my suggestion would be to check it out of you local library first, if you aren't sure about it.

This is not a genre I read often, and as such I have little to compare it to. Plus, because I did not enjoy Pachinko as much as I'd hoped, I had a hard time comparing it favorably to books I did like. That being said, the following books I enjoyed and believe some of these will appeal to a reader who liked Pachinko.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012), Katherine Boo

The Farming of Bones (1999), Edwidge Danticat

The Good Earth (1931), Pearl S. Buck

The Loneliest Americans (2022), Jay Caspian Kang (TBR)

Peach Blossom Spring (2022), Melissa Fu (TBR)

The Throwaway Children (2015), Diney Costeloe

More from Rebekah

  • Rebekah's Bookstagram
  • Rebekah's BookTok
    She/They librarian & author & all things
  • January 2022 in Review
    We're close enough to the end of January for me to know that it's highly unlikely I'll finish another book before before the month's out, so, here is my recap of the rather small list of books I've read for the first month of 2022!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Rebekah M

Related Articles