Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family as they fight poverty and prejudice in Japan. Although there were some good qualities, this National Book Award finalist just didn’t work for me.
**Since there are four generations of characters, I’m going to try to keep this simple by not using character names.**
The novel begins on an island in southern Korea in 1910. 1910 is the year Japan annexed Korea, which is an important event to the plot. This generation lives in extreme poverty but the sea, their kitchen garden and income from their boarders keeps them from starving. Dishonor comes to the family when their 16-year-old daughter is seduced by an older, married businessman and becomes pregnant. A Christian pastor marries her and takes her to Japan, another significant event in this family saga because Koreans in Japan were treated very poorly. They still faced extreme poverty but it was a different, urban kind of poverty without farming or fishing to help fill their table. Additionally, systemic prejudice made them very vulnerable.
So, in a nutshell, the first two generations were focused on survival and also ensuring a better future for their children by strongly encouraging hard work and education. They also suffered through WWII, which in Japan meant even more hardship.
The third generation begins to pull the family out of poverty. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the previous generation, one son attends college and another enters the pachinko parlor business, eventually becoming a millionaire. But the social stigma of being a Korean in Japan is too much for one of the brothers and he crumbles.
Generation four, a son, attends Columbia and earns a degree in economics. This family has come a long way in just four generations! He returns to Japan to work for an international bank, but despite his education and prestigious job, prejudice still shadows his life. It’s one thing this successful, hardworking family can’t shake. But because of their perseverance, they thrived anyway.
First, the things I liked about this book. The extreme poverty of the first two generations was handled well by the author. I really got a sense for what their lives were like. The early chapters focused a lot on food and money, which makes sense because I imagine people in their situation spend a good deal of time worrying about food and money. I also thought the author adeptly handled the status of Koreans in their situation – essentially people without a country. Even though generation two moved to Japan at a time when Japan controlled Korea, she wasn’t a Japanese citizen. None of her descendants were, either – they had South Korean passports, even though they had no real ties to that country anymore. The third thing the book did well was show the family’s arc of progression from illiterate and poor to well-educated and financially successful.
One of the things I disliked about the novel was the inconsistency of the writing. Some characters were well developed and some were not. One was introduced in a pretty weird scene and then wasn’t heard from again. One prominent character died “off screen” – the novel jumped to a few years later and he was just dead. The plot suffered similar inconsistencies. Random scenes received a lot of ink and didn’t really need to because there were much more efficient ways to advance the story. The appearance of some of these detailed, random scenes made it feel like short stories had just been cobbled together.
Additionally, I didn’t find the book engaging. In fact, I frequently found it tedious. It was missing something – maybe entertainment value? The concept had a lot of potential but the execution wasn’t very strong. It was the story of remarkable perseverance and transformation told in a very unremarkable way.
My opinion is in the minority. This novel received many very positive reviews. If you’ve read Pachinko, I’d love to hear your thoughts. It’s okay to disagree with me.
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