Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

After thinking about it, I decided to give this 3 stars. I wanted to rate it higher, but in the end I found that the novel failed in one of the main things it set out to do, which was to explore the nuances in questions of race, motherland, and nationhood.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. This novel was an epic family history spanning four generations of immigrant Koreans in Japan, at a time when Koreans were discriminated against. Right off the bat I knew I had to read it, since 1) I adore family sagas (e.g., Middlesex andOne Hundred Years of Solitude), and 2) it’s a novel set in East Asia, populated by East Asian characters. My own family is a family of Asian immigrants in another Asian country, so while the situation is not exactly the same, I felt I would find echoes of our history in this one.

And for the first half of the book, I wasn’t disappointed. I saw my own grandmother in Sunja, and I saw the hard life my grandparents must have lived in Yoseb and Kyunghee. I understood the emphasis on hard work, education, and most importantly, giving back to one’s family. Also, I found Min Jin Lee’s choice of narrative voice and point of view extremely important: She used a limited third person point of view, and relayed all events – whether happy or tragic – in a matter-of-fact tone, and in language closer to an anthropological account than to fiction or poetry. In my view, the utilitarian nature of the language mirrors the practical attitude of most of the characters. Any interior thoughts are narrated in the same manner as external events, and even then, are not explored beyond a few brief lines; this emphasizes the fact that interiority and identity are not given as much importance as survival against a capricious fate. This quiet, outward resilience, as opposed to the kind of resilience crowded by positive affirmation and self-talk prevalent in this generation, is encapsulated beautifully in the first line of the novel: “History has failed us, but no matter.” No matter what happens to them, Sunja’s family always get their bearings and will do whatever it takes to survive.

But things started to fall apart at the halfway point, around the stories of the third generation. Unlike the previous generation, Noa and Mozasu, Sunja’s sons, don’t necessarily do things out of a reactive striving against a harsh fate for the sake of survival; they possess more interiority and agency. But the language of the storytelling remains the same as the one used for the previous generations – it’s still that matter-of-fact narration, with only an executive summary of the character’s thoughts and feelings – so the characters’ actions come off as insufficiently foreshadowed and unnecessarily melodramatic. It gets worse towards the end of the book, since it was populated by the points of view of various minor characters that I didn’t really care about. It’s a case where depth is sacrificed for breadth; as a result, most characters were not fleshed out.

One consequence of this is that issues of race and nationhood are explored in a rather simplistic manner. There seems to be no change in how the characters view their status as foreigners from Sunja’s time to Solomon’s time (Solomon being her grandson, the fourth generation), and I think this is because the characters themselves are woefully one-dimensional. The world is still split between “good Koreans” and “bad Koreans”, or “good Japanese” and “bad Japanese”. Morality is also absolutely defined: pachinko (gambling) parlors are “bad”, but Mozasu, Solomon’s father, is a “good” businessman and Korean because he never cheats, he pays his taxes, he is fair to his employees and his family, and so on. Questions of race, motherland, and nationality, and questions of morality, remain black and white and dichotomous.

I think part of the reason people love this is that this is a novel about bad things happening to good people, and by nature we gravitate to rooting for the good people and the underdogs. And yes, I did like most of the characters in the novel; it’s almost impossible to dislike them. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re flat characters who rarely change throughout the course of history.

Overall, though, it’s an engrossing novel; I think most people would enjoy it. I just expected more from it, I guess.

Read from August 18 – December 28, 2018 | Goodreads Account