There’s a nice feature on Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko in last weekend’s New York Times. I enjoyed the book myself though never got around to writing a review. It’s a very different work from her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, which I described as a combination of Sex and the City and Wall Street, and which was a frothy and enjoyable tale of the daughter of Korean immigrant parents trying to make her way in Manhattan.
Pachinko is a much darker, more serious book, and was many years in the researching, writing, and rewriting. It is very long – when I saw it in my local bookshop I decided that I would read it on my Kindle instead – and I guess needs to be that length, bringing together as it does a large cast of characters, tracing the history of a family over several generations, from impoverished beginnings in Busan at the very start of the Colonial period and following their struggles to thrive in an inhospitable Japan.
Partly as a result of the book’s length and the number of characters, towards the end I began to lose track of who was who. Probably that was the main reason I didn’t get around to reviewing it: if I had lost plot (literally) I wouldn’t be able to do the book justice in a review. In a way, it’s a backhanded compliment, because probably the reason I started confusing the different people was that I was reading the book too quickly – the flow of the narrative was pulling me along and I wasn’t paying enough attention to what was happening. But I remember thinking as I read the book how believable it all was; the difficulty of ethnic Koreans in Japan making their way in life in the face of discrimination and a feeling that they don’t belong anywhere – Japan or Korea.
In the NYT interview, Lee explains the title of the book:
For ethnic Koreans in Japan, one route to economic improvement has been pachinko, a pastime derived from pinball. Played by millions of Japanese at noisy, smoke-filled halls, many of which are operated by zainichi, pachinko occupies a legal and social gray zone. The game itself is legal, but the gambling that inevitably accompanies it is not.
“Instead of banning it, Japan tolerates it but disparages the people who run it,” said Ms. Lee. She sees a parallel with Koreans’ place in Japanese society: deeply established, yet not fully accepted as legitimate members.
Despite my inability to review it properly, I thoroughly recommend it.