Book Review : Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


* Shortlisted for the National Book Award *
* One of the New York Times‘s 10 Best Books of 2017 *
* Selected for Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club *

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.


That last sentence in the blurb became one of the reasons I picked up Pachinko. That, and the other reason being – I wanted to read more about Korean immigrants in Japan after I had read Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro. The subjects are similar but the premises of these two books are vastly apart. Pachinko, literally, is a machine game like pinball which is associated ethnically with Koreans, though the game is hugely popular in Japan. In the initial years, most Japanese blamed the Korean immigrants (called Zainichi in a derogatory way) for introducing this gambling game to Japan. This book is about Pachinko, but it is more about a family and its endless struggles.

In a nutshell, the story begins in a small fishy island in Korea called Yeongdo, a little far from Busan. Hoonie, the man with a cleft lip and a limp and Yangjin give birth to Sunja, a not-so-beautiful but hardworking and stout girl. Sunja helps Yangjin run a boardinghouse after Hoonie’s death and things get rough when she gets pregnant with a married man. A pastor from the boardinghouse marries her and they move to Osaka. Sunja gives birth to Noa and later to Mozasu, living with her brother-in-law and his wife. The events and years that follow are long and tedious. After her husband’s death, Sunja takes up peddling Kimchi, working in a restaurant, surviving the second World War and facing her old lover Koh Hansu, who turns out to be a Yakuza. Does the odd father-son duo come to terms with each other? You will definitely have to read the book to know the entire story.

It is pretty safe to say that I loved Min Jin Lee’s writing. Expressing your ethnicity in a beautiful narrative while being an immigrant is not an easy task but she seems like a master at it. The other Asian immigrant writer whom I really admire is Amy Tan. Both women have opened windows to a society and culture, not through translated fiction, but with original works in English while retaining their ethnic flavours.

Lee’s characterisation is impeccable in the way she built Sunja from a child to an old woman, passing through each phase of her life. She expressed each one beautifully – the anguish of brother-in-law Yoseb, the capability of holding the family together by the sister-in-law Kyunghee, the meritorious elder son Noa, the less educated but successful younger son Mozasu, the relentless but helpful mafia ex-lover Koh Hansu and above all Sunja – the iron lady who held onto straws to survive with her family.

Koreans were on the brink all the while they were under the imperial rule of Japan. It is heart-wrenching as well as heartwarming to read the way a handful of them fought all debacles to survive in the hope of living in a free and happy Korea. I would love to read more about this period in the last century and of course more books by Min Jin Lee as well.

P.S. – Did you know that in Korean, father and mother are called uppa and amma? Sounds familiar, right?

My Rating: 4.5/5

About the author: 

Min Jin Lee is an author and journalist. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was named as one of the ‘Top 10 Novels of the Year’ by the Times and USA Today. She wrote Pachinko whilst living in Tokyo, and now lives in New York with her family.

Book Details:

Language: English,  Genre: Fiction / Historical

Author(s): Min Jin Lee

Publisher: Apollo, Year Published: February 2017

Binding: Kindle, Edition: First, Pages: 496


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5 thoughts on “Book Review : Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

  1. This sounds like such a lovely book. And yes, books that showcase the cultural identity naturally make it all the more beautiful to walk into that world, even if it be a dark story.


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