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Faltering family saga

Han Kang’s quirky Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian opened my, and I suspect many other’s, eyes to South Korean literature. I was curious, then, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American, came out to rave reviews. Especially, as I have a soft spot for epic family sagas, the kind that sucks you in and makes you cry when you finish as you feel you’ve become a part of the family. However, Pachinko has turned out to be a tricky book to write about. It has many strong points but almost as many faults. I learned about the immigrant experience, Japanese racism towards Koreans, but missed some more historical context. There were characters in this book I really felt I got to know while others remained like card-board cut-outs. All in all, an uneven reading experience but one which still, somehow, managed to keep me going.

The story starts in 1910, with the grand-parents of Sunja, the book’s central character. Korea is colonized by Japan and life is brutal. Hoonie, their son, is born with a cleft-palate and a twisted foot, but wins people (and against the odds, a wife) over with his good heart and hard work. Two baby boys are lost before Sunja arrives. Haunted by poverty, deaths, deceit and generally bad luck, Sunja’s life is anything but easy. Food, usually too little, is central to this book. Sunja and her mother have an extraordinary ability to turn almost nothing into something delicious and that becomes their strongest card in the battle to survive. Sunja’s saviour comes in the form of a Christian pastor, Isak, who brings her to Japan, but Koreans are considered lesser beings by the Japanese and life there is not much easier than back home.

Seems like I have revealed a lot here, maybe, but rest assured that there are another 500 pages to keep you going. And keep you going it does because Lee is a consummate storyteller, which really is the main attraction of this book. The writing itself feels a bit flat and that goes for some of the characters as well, even one as central as Isak, whom I never got a full grasp of.  When the occasional metaphor comes around, it doesn’t always work. I also craved some more description of the surroundings, to get a feel for what Japan and Korea looked like then compared to what it has become, and a clearer historical context. My knowledge of this part of Japanese/Korean history is light, to say the least, and I was disappointed that Lee didn’t delve more into what was going on in the background, such as the to two wars that the country went through.

What Lee does well, though, is to portray extreme poverty, the battle to survive, the burden of being a woman, and perhaps most compelling of all, the experience of racism in Japan, which almost operates as a segregated society. The extent to which our characters try to ‘melt’ into Japanese society by making themselves as invisible to the authorities’ as possible, and to erase all traces of ‘Koreanness’ including changing their names, is harrowing to see.

Just like Korea, Sunja’s family goes on a journey from one bowl of rice per week to modern abundance. The Panchinko business, a type of pinball machine, becomes the family’s financial saviour. An irony that won’t be lost on readers of this family saga which in my book almost, but not quite, deserve the label ‘great’.

Pachinko is published by Apollo, 560 pages.

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