‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ Min Jin Lee’s opening line epitomises the essence of Pachinko (2017), a novel that brings awareness to an untold past with a poignant yet optimistic tone. Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family living in Japan throughout the 20th century. Themes of personal identity, place and culture are intertwined with the historical backdrop of the racial hostility and discrimination that Koreans faced from the Japanese.
Enlightening us on a history of hardship means there is the potential for a relentless narrative of suffering with an author bombarding their reader with details and judgments. Lee, however, avoids this; Pachinko is by no means an overbearing novel, yet its emotional purpose still flourishes. Poignancy and emotional impact lie largely in Lee’s construction of characters. The human needs and desires of these characters, for example Sunja’s motherly love, Yoseb’s want to provide for his family, or Mozasu’s light-hearted friendliness, aren’t stifled by historical portrayal or judgment. Lee’s choice of a focal family and the relations around them allows her to focus on building vivid characters, and our readerly love, admiration and respect for those portrayed means that our emotional engagement goes beyond simply viewing them as historical victims.
There is more to Pachinko than just a focus on history. Pondering about his job in a pachinko parlour, Mozasu asserts that life is just like the game, ‘the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control.’ It is a philosophy for life that Lee channels throughout Pachinko, which is based on her own Presbyterian faith where free will and predestination exist side by side. In the face of hostility, Lee’s characters maintain a quiet perseverance while reflective of the fact they feel they can influence their lives.
Ultimately Pachinko relays important historical knowledge, but Lee achieves this through the medium of a beautifully accomplished novel. This is evident from the characters and themes, but also from the graceful writing style. Those aware of Lee’s debut novel Free Food For Millionaires will be familiar with her style, which has been developed and enhanced to an even greater execution with Pachinko. It is a graceful narrative of a marginalized history and a thoroughly worthwhile read.