Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 5

A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond. Sunja is the solid, diligent, warm hearted only child of a poor widow running a boarding house in Busan (Korea). An unintended pregnancy and a chance encounter with a kind, tubercular, pastor launches her to a life in Osaka. Life is not easy in Japan for Koreans who are Christian to boot, but the writing handles this beautifully. It is a precise, detailed, unfolding of lives against a background of racism and cruelty that focuses on survival, not on the drama of injustice. After all, survival really is the ultimate human story.

EEach chapter is a strobe illuminating a slice of time and place with snippets of experience.  Each is labeled with a place and date, and focusses on the experience of one of the characters: Sunja, her husband, his brother and wife, and eventually Sunja’s two children, their spouses, girlfriends, and children. The stories take place from 1910 to 1989 and expand from Busan to Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagano, and even New York.

The range of character, location, and time lends an incredible variety to the attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of being a Korean in Japan. The author is able to explore a number of issues and situations in depth through this panoply of voices: “passing” as Japanese, proper roles for women, homosexuality in Japan, the Yakuza, perceptions of Christians and Christianity, suicide, honor, and the wisdom distilled into departures.

The book is long but impossible to put down. It exposes a piece of history from the perspective of a variety of every day people. The diversity of viewpoints is far more revealing than the summary found in most history books.

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