Pachinko is a family saga and a novel about the experience of the outsider. Sunja is the daughter of Hoonie, her much-loved father who died young. Hoonie was a disabled man, which in her coastal village in Korea, means she carries a stigma and may never marry. When she becomes pregnant by a Korean from Japan, a married man, it seems she will be outcast.
Then a Korean Christian pastor comes to the family’s boarding house. Their kindness to him during an extended illness and his faith lead him to make Sunja an offer – he will marry her and bring up the child as his own if she will come to Japan with him. He is moving there to escape the poverty brought by Japanese colonialism.
His hopes for an easier life in Japan prove naïve. Sunja and her husband live with her brother and sister-in-law, Kyunghee. The two women become close. Kyunghee accepts Sunja and her pregnancy, and her charm and delicacy and Sunja’s strength and perseverance complement each other in the trials that lie ahead. Life in the Korean ghetto of Osaka is difficult but together the women survive poverty, war, repression and loss.
Sunja’s sons face different challenges. Noa and Mozasu, are both born in Japan, but they are not citizens. They are subjected to prejudice and their ambiguous status means they are never secure. But while Mozasu reacts with defiance, Noa tries ever harder to assimilate, to become more Japanese. He values Japanese ideas, culture, even the language, over Korean. His struggle is depicted with compassion and we see the compromises made by the Korean characters – and the Japanese who are close to them.
It has resonance today, when we see people from minorities taking leading roles in anti-immigrant parties or governments. This subtle depiction of Noa provides some insight into why they make what seems like an incomprehensible choice.
Another way the characters insulate themselves from prejudice is through wealth. Money doesn’t buy acceptance, but it does buy power, within certain constraints. For Sunja and her family, the support of a wealthy patron also has its price.
The writing in Pachinko is beautiful. The author creates vivid characters and evokes place from a few brushstrokes – whether it’s the remote beauty of the beach near Sunja’s village in Korea, or the frenetic desperation of the pachinko parlours (gambling arcades) of Osaka. The narration is understated, even at times of great drama, and this quiet voice somehow heightens the emotion.
Pachinko is the story of a family and survival in tough circumstances. At its heart is the strength and resourcefulness of women.
I received a copy of Pachinko from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Pachinko on Goodreads
Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, try Exit West by Mohsin Hamid