Min Jin Lee’s second novel is a sprawling saga about a Korean family during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Spanning four generations, “Pachinko” explores questions of immigration, discrimination, political unrest and national identity. The family’s mindset is introduced in the opening line: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Their resilience is woven through the rest of the novel, a tale of an ordinary family that tumbles and endures.
Lee’s straightforward yet fluid prose contextualizes personal stories within the wider scope of political history. The novel spans from 1910 to 1989, and first introduces readers to Hoonie, a poor countryside boy in Korea. His wife, Yangjin, takes charge of their humble boarding house, toiling long hours to put food on the table of the unofficial family of boarders and maids packed in the small quarters.
When Yangjin’s daughter, Sunja, gets pregnant out of wedlock, she enters a marriage of convenience with a visiting Korean minister. The couple migrates to Osaka, where Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. They struggle to make Japan their home, since the Korea they know as “home” eventually splits into North and South Korea, and their family and friends scatter.
Their children Noa and Mozasu, as second-generation immigrants, face a different set of struggles. Born in Japan, but ethnically Korean, they embody an in-between state between cultures that makes them question their identity. They grew up attending Japanese schools and assimilating to the culture, yet they are never fully accepted by Japanese classmates and employers. On the other hand, they are removed from the experience of growing up in Korea, so they lack a strong emotional tie to a single nation.
Meanwhile, political unrest continues, changing lives for both the Koreans and Japanese in the story. Japan is rumbled by its involvement in World War II, changing the socioeconomic landscape of the family’s story once again.
These political events transpire in the backdrop. They appear indirectly, in the way they impact characters’ daily lives, relationships and decision-making. What makes Lee’s novel so rich is the use of national politics as a foundation upon which a set of fully developed characters is built, molding a unique family identity that blends culture with the personal.
The novel’s title, “Pachinko,” which refers to a Japanese gambling machine, is a fitting descriptor of the immigrant experience. It’s the family’s gamble of moving to another country, the questions and confusions that come with the unknown. It’s a gamble with the odds stacked against them, forcing immense sacrifice, pain and loss.
Yet at the same time, working at a pachinko parlor is the occupation that eventually helps the family establish themselves. It’s a gamble that holds the beaming hope that through hard work and resilience, families can win the opportunity to etch their story permanently into the history and community of a new country.
“Pachinko” is a novel that winds through lifetimes, cycling through new worlds as the political climate evolves. But whether the world involves Korean countrysides, tightly sealed bottles of kimchi, urban ghettos, police visits or university schooling, one force remains present throughout: The fierce loyalty the characters have to protect the people they love. Through the web of family, four generations ultimately find home.