Pachinko begins in Korean in 1911, when Koreans lived under Japanese rule. The novel starts with a humble fisherman and his wife, raising the last of their surviving sons. Hoonie who is quiet with a cleft lip, is not considered the best catch, but his family name is good, and while they are not wealthy, they are certainly more financially secure than others. Eventually Hoonie marries Yangjin, a quiet, reasonable girl, and together they lead a small, valuable life. They give birth to Sunja, whom they adore, and who adores them back.
The story truly begins when Sunja is older, and falls for a yakuza. She is saved from disgrace by Isak, a Christian minister, with whom she travels to Japan, seeking a better life. The trials and tribulations that follow the couple are harrowing, and test their resilience and beliefs. The story spans four generations of Sunja’s family and chronicles the unfolding effects of World War II, and the Japanese occupation on Korea.
I think Sunja has probably taken up residence as one of my most loved literary characters. She is sensible, resourceful, with an inner strength. Her brains are her greatest weapon as she endures the arduous experience of living in a country that views her people as inferior, ignorant, and savage. Koreans are forced to live in squalor, taking jobs that pay barely enough to cover their rent. They are humiliated, mocked, and shunned. This was a part of history that I did not know much about before picking up this novel. Lee does an effective job in portraying the injustices the Koreans faced during this time. My insides burned at many of the plot points in this novel. However, Lee depicts Sunja in such a way that her strength becomes undeniable. Sunja doesn’t get bogged down in the idea of insurmountable injustice. Instead, she keeps looking ahead, trying to do the best for her family. She is determined to save them all anyway she can. I continued to be in awe of her throughout the duration of the novel. With the story covering four generations, it is hard not to stumble across several memorable characters. There are many personalities to sympathise with, admire, and love. Sunja, however, is the main narrative thread that strings them altogether, and (for me, at least) eclipses all the other characters.
Lee’s writing style is quite minimalist. It seems almost clinical in its objective descriptions. And yet it feels wrong to say that because it stirred such deep emotions within me. Lee ignites despair, sympathy, anger, and joy. I found myself immensely moved, and had to put the book down several times to digest whatever I had just read. It is an expansive story, and one to immerse yourself in fully. It demands a lot of its reader. The payoff, however, is entirely worth it.