Character, not Plot, Drives ‘Pachinko’

This one’s been on the list for a while, but I finally got to the tragic darling that I got on the digital library hold list for, like, seven months ago. (At a certain point, I probably should have just bought it, but I’ve been busy living in a global pandemic and all.) As it turns out, Pachinko was far less heartbreaking than I expected it to be. Please note that I didn’t say it wasn’t heartbreaking at all, just that it wasn’t as tragic as I anticipated. I knew the Japanese occupation of Korea was awful, thanks to Kim’s Convenience, but did not realize how awful it was until reading this book. Yes, I went to public school; why do you ask?

Kim’s Convenience: dropping laughs and history at the same time.

The book’s narrative about four generations of a family who struggle under imperialist circumstances, and the lengths they to go in order to succeed despite it, is fascinating and benefits from Min Jin Lee’s considerable research on what it was like to live as a Korean in Japan at that time. Each of the generations has to make some kind of compromise of happiness to survive—marry a man whose disability has made him seem unsuitable for other would-be brides, move far from home with a near-stranger, deny heritage and identity, or give up the glitz of a promising career to avoid being used by an employer.

Although while reading it would be pretty easy to match the character to the situation (after all, I did list them consecutively), I don’t think they constitute a spoiler. For something to be a spoiler implies that knowing the fact in the beginning changes the experience of unfolding the narrative. That is not the case here. The titular pachinko parlor doesn’t arrive until well into the second half of the book. There are some surprises, I suppose, including the lengths to which one character goes to absolve himself from what he considers to be a horrifying heritage.


But by and large, this is a plot driven by meditation and character, not surprise. The tenacity of these family members is as gratifying as their failings are painful, a reminder that love and family mean slogging through the trials as it does celebrating the victories. What is a life, Pachinko asks, but years of hard work and disappointment pinned together with spaced-out glimmers of joy?

If it’s not already apparent, I came to this book in without much background, and I still can make little to no judgment about the truth it gets at beyond what Min Jin Lee discusses in her acknowledgements and what little Googling I’ve done, so I can’t make any ruling on how Pachinko does in that regard. And when I started reading this, I anticipated it would be similar in some ways to Lotus in that both had to do with women in Asian countries undergoing great change while facing significant systemic challenges. Beyond being an admittedly ignorant assumption, the characters and the things that drive them in each are wildly different.

Lotus is a story of redemption while Pachinko is one of long-suffering. It is one of taking a heap of ash and making something beautiful from it. It is an acknowledgement of hardship and reinvention. Each of the characters still lingers with me after I’ve finished the book, and I expect they will for a long time.

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