Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a family saga about a four generations of a Korean family that is set in Korea and Japan. It’s a National Book Award finalist, and, in what may be an even greater honor than that, it made my Favorite Books list.
I have found that it is easier to explain why I don’t like a particular book or to point out a book’s flaws than it is to explain why I absolutely loved one. It’s like explaining why a rainbow is beautiful. I can talk about how the colors are pretty or how it made me feel, but there is something about rainbows, sunsets, and the best works of art that transcends easy explanation. You just have to experience them. Read Pachinko.
The format of the book is straightforward. It proceeds chronologically from about 1900-ish to 1989 and follows various characters that belong to one family. It never sprawls out of control – there aren’t 37 second-cousins that you will have to keep track of – and there aren’t flash-backs and flash-forwards that could potentially cause confusion. There are occasional Japanese or Korean words sprinkled around, but their meaning is apparent from the context. I don’t speak a lick of those languages, and I followed everything without ever having to consult a dictionary. The prose is simple and straightforward, generally consisting of short, direct sentences. There’s not a lot of fluff. Therefore, the book reads quickly, despite being an almost 500 page family saga about sexism, fate, hard work, destiny, chance, war, poverty, racism, familial obligations, identity, immigration, citizenship, language, education, opportunity, community, and faith.
The main characters are diverse, interesting, flawed, and generally fundamentally good people. The characters are not very Dynamic (at least in an obvious way), but they weren’t really intended to be. This isn’t a story populated with characters that have grand, clear character arcs. This made them feel more realistic to me. How many people do you know that are on a Hero’s Journey? Most people I know just try to keep their heads down, work to put food on the table, and hope for good opportunities for their children.
I’ve said before that I am a fan of history, and I was generally ignorant of Korean culture in Japan. Pachinko is not some dry history lesson, though. It’s as entertaining as a soap opera.
You should read it.