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Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I love a good family saga, a sprawling generational tale of several hundred pages that’ll keep me engrossed for days. I’m always on the lookout for ones that are set in different countries, so I was especially excited to pick up Pachinko, a supposed sweeping story about Korean immigrants living in Japan at the turn of the 20th century.

The reason I read family sagas is because I love the drama, the scandal, falling for flawed or evil characters and watching their choice of actions play out. But with Pachinko I was disappointed: I couldn’t fully love these characters because they were basically all too good, I couldn’t indulge in the drama because there barely was any. I could enjoy the cultural differences and the central themes surrounding the plot since the story takes place over the course of several wars with years of famine, distress and crime, but I found it such a shame that there was barely any action. This is a story that takes place over the course of WWI, WWII, several atomic bombings, the separation of Korea into two different countries – so why are these historical events hardly talked about? I understand that the author probably wanted to focus more on the lives of the characters and not overshadow their stories with accounts of historical events, but honestly, that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a bit more direct involvement; sure these characters were affected by these changes in the world, but most of it was along the lines of “oh, with Kim Il-Sung doing his thing in the newly formed North Korea, it seems it is impossible for us as Koreans to return home. Oh well, let’s open a Pachinko parlour.”

If I had found these characters’ lives marginally more interesting, I really would not have minded, but that wasn’t the case. For a nearly 800 page novel, there was a disappointing lack of drama. And when there was, the delicious drama I so craved was undermined by the incomprehensible writing style. To give a slightly spoilery example, at one point a character returns home after many years, on the brink of death. His wife hears the news and runs home, and I’m reading this on the edge of my seat thinking FINALLY SOME DRAMA OMG YES RUN TO YOUR HUSBAND only to have to endure a whole page of this woman casually contemplating her parenting skills while she is running home to her dying husband. Seriously, he is dying, you haven’t seen him in years, you’re running home to help the poor guy, now is not the time to think about how lovely a mum you are – pick your moments!

As the book ambled on, the writing style just began to annoy me more and more. I already felt a disconnect from the characters because they felt a bit boring, but the way the story was told just made it even harder to feel anything for them. I get that with family dramas, the timeline often has to jump forward several years between chapters, that’s fine. But why do we have to miss out key events? Why am I jumping forward several years to find out oh, this character’s dead now. Also this really important thing happened, but we’re just going to mention it in passing and focus on this chapter where two dull characters have yet another conversation about politics. Is this intentional?! I was certain the whole reason the story didn’t really mention all these key historical events I was so looking forward to is because the author really wanted to focus more on the characters. So then why was she deliberately forcing this disconnect??

That said, there were elements of the novel I did still enjoy. I feel it had a strong start; the first few generations of characters were much more likeable than the later, despite how annoyingly good they mostly were. I enjoyed learning about the culture the older generations lived in, how difficult there lives were in times of poverty, how they scrimped and saved just to most basic of rations. It was really amazing to read about, especially since we know that this kind of poverty was very real for most of the population back then, and is still very real in some areas today. The culture was well portrayed; the historical accuracy, the discrimination, the war-time atrocities, even the little cultural and historical differences were really fun to learn about.

“Parents weren’t supposed to praise their children, she knew this – it would only invite disaster.”

“most village girls avoided the sight of him, and Hoonie would have known enough not to want something you could not have – this forbearance was something that any normal peasant would have accepted about his life and what he was allowed to desire.”

I would say I enjoyed this novel enough, but there were a lot of factors in the way this was written that made me really feel like I was fighting to feel something for these characters, fighting to keep my interest. I’m not sure if I can say I would recommend this novel, maybe it would be good for someone who wants to learn more about the history and culture without picking up something non-fiction. But for anyone looking for an epic generational saga, there are many others I would recommend above this one.


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