7 Things I Loved About Min Jin Lee’s great novel ‘Pachinko’
- The page-turning story which is rooted in historical facts. Pachinko is nearly 500 pages long but you can’t stop turning the pages once you start reading it. From the start, you’re immersed in the family saga of Sunja, the loved daughter of Hoonie, who was born with a “cleft palate and a twisted foot”, and Yangjin. Extremely poor but happy, they lived in the fishing village of Yeongdo, near the post of Busan, now situated in South Korea but at the time when the novel opens, in the 1920s, Korea had been annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910. Much of the tension in the story is generated by the extreme prejudice the Korean characters encounter at the hands of the Japanese; Min Jin explores the horrifying discrimination that Koreans suffered with real subtlety but never shies away from showing things as they were.
- The compelling characters. When Sunja was thirteen, her father, Hoonie died of tuberculosis and then in 1932 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, causing widespread suffering in Korea because the Japanese were given extremely preferential treatment in Korea above the native Koreans: the Depression meant that Sunja and her mother, Yangjin, had to run a boardinghouse to survive, taking in six lodgers into their tiny house. All the major characters in the novel are complex and sympathetic. Yangjin appears on the surface to be a doting, diligent mother and cook, but, without giving too much away, we see a dark side to her when she passes judgement on her daughter’s lover on her deathbed. Sunja is even more finely drawn: she is a “peasant” girl — and then mother — who is a fully-rounded character with conflicting desires.
- The exploration of desire. Above all, this novel, for all its brilliant evocation of Korean and Japanese culture, is an investigation into the conflict between human desires and social conventions. Sunja suffers because she wishes to enjoy the moment with Hansu, a rich Korean who appears to offer her the chance to rescue her from a life of poverty. Min Jin Lee’s writing excels when it is sensual. It is worth quoting an important moment in the novel when Hansu seduces Sunja while they are mushroom picking in the forest (p. 46): “Hansu moved towards her. She could smell his soap and the winter-green of his hair wax. He was cleanly shaven and handsome. She loved how white his clothes were. Why did such a thing matter? The men at the boardinghouse could not help being filthy. Their work dirtied all their things, and no amount of scrubbing would get the fish smell of their shirts and pants. Her father had taught her not to judge people on such shallow points: What a man wore or owned had nothing to do with his heart and character. She inhaled deeply, his scent mingled with the cleansing air of the forest.” I loved the way MJL entered the “thought-stream” of Sunja here; we can see her conflicting wishes to do the “right thing” and yet also discover what it means to touch, to smell, to taste a person you’re intoxicated with.
- Immersing yourself in another culture and era. The novel has a really immersive quality. I read it over the space of a few weeks; I would come home after work and would want to read it rather than watching TV because the novel has the quality of a really brilliant HBO serial: you want to see what happens in the next episode. There is an epic sweep to the narrative which spans the whole of the 20th century. After Sunja rejects Hansu’s offer of an “arrangement”, she marries a poor cleric, Isak, and moves with him to live with his brother, Yoseb, in Osaka, Japan. There, the climate is much harsher and the prejudice against Koreans even worse, with Koreans not even being allowed to become citizens even after living in the country for decades. Sunja befriends Yoseb’s beautiful wife, Kyunghee, and together, despite great hardship, they triumph.
- A brilliant evocation of what it means to be a parent. Sunja has two sons, Noa and Mozasu. Her husband Isak is imprisoned by the Japanese in the late 1930s for refusing to honour the Emperor above his Christian faith and then dies. Sunja has to more or less bring up her sons by herself. Her eldest son, Noa, seems to be set for great things, attaining a place to read English Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo but there is an unexpected twist in the narrative and things do not go according to plan. Once again, MJL’s facility to create complex characters means that you never quite know what is going to happen next.
- A fascinating insight into pachinko culture. Sunja’s youngest son, Mozasu, is not academic and does what many Koreans do in Japan who wish to make money: he works in the pachinko industry. I knew nothing about this arcade game — which is a bit like a cross between a fruit machine and a pinball game — until I read the novel, but I certainly do now! MJL shows us the good and evil side to the industry, right down to the tiniest details of how deals are made.
- A mouth-watering narrative about food. Cooking plays a central role in the novel, with kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables, becoming extremely important in rescuing our protagonists at a pivotal moment, and food generally being very important. I loved all the descriptions of cooking, eating and the selling of food.