Pachinko by Min Jin Lee / ★★★★★
Summary: Pachinko follows a Korean family through the 20th century, beginning with an unplanned pregnancy in the 1900s that ignites a story filled with struggle, war, discrimination, and unexpected blessings.
“You are very brave, Noa. Much, much braver than me. Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
Genre: Historical fiction
Pachinko is a lengthy, engrossing story about a family’s journey through the 20th century and the struggles posed to them by war, society, and cultural expectations. About a Korean family living in Japan, it spans nearly a century of history, but the history is not the spotlight- that belongs to the characters. Min Jin Lee deeply analyzes cultural identity by exploring a wide range of characters, giving the reader a nuanced view of success, shame, failure, and happiness as characters grapple with their dreams and limitations set for them by Japanese and Korean culture, society, and often by their own selves.
While this book is long, I flew through most of it in the span of two days. It was an easy book to fall right into. I loved the atmosphere of every place this book brought us to, and I loved the characters and each of their distinct plotlines. My favorite thing about this book is how Min Jin Lee was able to intertwine so many different, personal narratives.
I did think that the second half of the book was paced quite a bit faster than the first half, but in my experience with generational sagas like this, I find that quite common, so I didn’t mind so much. However, I did think the first half of the book did a much better job of living the history, while the second half reiterated a lot of it through character’s dialogue- more telling than experiencing as the reader. Still, while I did enjoy the first half better, the way the ending ties in with earlier events really came back and punched me in the heart. It was beautiful and elegant, and I loved it.
Pachinko has a very large cast of characters, some who span the entire book, and others that we meet only briefly. Still, Min Jin Lee manages to give us personal insight into each of their lives, the lots they’ve been cast into, and the distinct ways each of them choose to handle it. Min Jin Lee does a fantastic job of exploring different sides of the same coin with multiple characters, and I loved the ways characters would approach similar situations differently- and sometimes tragically. Min Jin Lee explored cultural identity thoroughly, but never heavy-handedly. No matter how many pages were devoted to a character, each was developed beautifully, and each time we reached the end of a characters journey it was difficult not to be sad. in fact, It was very easy, and I cried many times.
Min Jin Lee’s style of writing struck me as simple, yet elegant. She would state things so simply and bluntly, yet with such a distinct grace. It was the dialogue between characters that stood out the most to me, however. Her characters had such a way of speaking that always struck right to the heart, subtly or overtly, that touched me beyond anything else and really made every scene what it was.
But like I said, I did feel that a lot of the history in the second half of the book was a bit rushed and hashed out through dialogue rather than experienced with the reader, but I could forgive it when there were so many more wonderfully written pieces of dialogue. The end of the book, especially, really got me.
Was I satisfied?
YES. This book was sad and painful and sweet and beautiful. It’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it very, very much, and for all the tears I shed for it, I thought it deserved five stars.