Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a wonderful book and it offers so many wonderful things for the reader. Firstly, I think one of the most important parts of the book is the setting, in early-twentieth century Japan, through the perspective of Korean immigrants. I knew precious little about the political scape of East Asia during this period of time, which is a deficit in my history for sure. Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 until the end of WWII, and obviously Korea still has not recovered from the devastating consequences of basically the last century.

Koreans were treated poorly in their home country, and many emigrated to Japan to try to find a foothold into the riches found on their captors' islands, but were treated even worse over there. This is a story of immigrants, of what pride and homeland must be sacrificed in order to survive in the world.

My favourite character is arguably the main character, although there really are so many. Sunja is solid and leads a simple life, or at least that is what she thinks will happen. While she had to work hard, it seems as though her childhood is idyllic, with two parents who cherish her and treat her to respect herself. But then her father dies and she falls for a handsome older man, and gets pregnant. And handsome older man, Hansu from here on in, reveals he is married. Tale as old as time.

Hansu is rich and connected and wants to set Sunja up for the rest of her days as his second wife, but she's having none of it. Fortune favours her when a kind but sickly minister is passing through at her mother's boarding house and decides to marry her and bring her along with him to Japan. And so the story commences. Her lot is thrown in with her husband and his family as they try to weather the storms that come their way, as the shit is very much hitting the fan in Korea and Japan at this point. They are barely able to scratch out a living for themselves, but they do so, and Sunja raises her first son Noa, as well as a second son Mozasu, as if they both belonged to her husband.

But Hansu is very very connected, being basically a head gangster in Japan, and follows Sunja and his son's progress with great interest. He steps in a few times when he thinks it is necessary, to save the family or to help improve their likelihood of survival. He is like an armed guardian angel watching over them, until his actions have deadly consequences.

Because this is a multi-generational epic novel, there are approximately one million characters and I found at the end I was starting to get blasé about what was going to happen to them. If Pachinko suffers from anything, it is the same problem that happens in many multi-generational epics - there are so many characters and some are introduced quickly and leave even more quickly that I was starting to get whiplash. About two-thirds through the book I stopped getting invested in the characters. Up until that point, though, I found everything about this book engrossing. When it moved away from Sunja's story, I did stop caring as much. Sunja is the heart of this book.

Hansu is an important figure, obviously, always hovering in the background in every bit of good chance that happens to come to Sunja. But oh is he every complicated. He is impossible to truly like, as deep in his soul he is awful. He acts in his own self interest 100% of the time and will stomp on all the little people who get in his way (or even just mildly offend them somehow.) I kind of got the sense that we are supposed to think that he is romantic and redeemed because he loves an ugly woman, and I find that concept actually offensive. I am no fan of Hansu, and I respect Sunja for wanting him out of her life, except for when it comes to saving her children (because Sunja is, at the heart of it, a survivor).

An important theme in the book is stereotypes and how people fall into them, particularly in a racial context. The hierarchical system in Japan is unbelievably racist, and the Japanese-born Koreans suffer a great deal from this injustice. It is difficult to move in a society with such a stranglingly strict social hierarchy, and at times all the characters seem to actually want is to be acknowledged as human.

... that seeing him as only Korean - good or bad - was the same as seeing him as only a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

Noa is Sunja's son by Hansu, and discovers it when this rich Korean decides to step in and pay for all of his schooling, as he is very bright and could go far within the Japanese system with the proper backing. Noa is unable to handle the truth about his parentage and cuts ties with his family, essentially breaking my heart along with Sunja's. He has some of the same selfish impulses of his biological father - when he can't have life exactly as he wishes it, he burns everything down around him. He is never able to truly adapt and that is his downfall.

His brother, Mozasu, the true son of the minister is the most honourable of the lot, I think, the one who was never going to get by in school so made a very good life for himself finding the perfect balance between vice and crime at the Pachinko parlours of Japan. He doesn't care that he is not respected within Japanese society - he can care for his family and his mother and grandmother in the way that they deserve after a very hard life. All because he is able to accept exactly who he is and where he comes from and what that means in the place that he is in. He adapted to what came his way, worked hard, and was the ultimate survivor.

There are so many gems in this book and I do highly recommend a read, but I just wanted to share a touching little moment that made me tear up. There are many instances in Pachinko where Lee explores what it is to be a mother. Sunja's mother, Yangjin's, first childhad a harelip, something that would not be fixable in those times.

"Do you mind it?" Hoonie asked her, and she said no, because she did not. When Yangjin was alone with her firstborn, she traced her index finger around the infant's mouth and kissed it; she had never loved anyone as much as her baby.

There is nothing quite like a mother's love.