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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I have spent the last week furiously reading Pachinko for two book groups that meet on Tuesday. It's a big chunk of a novel; clocking in at almost 500 pages. I've finally finished it this Sunday morning, and even though I haven't given myself a lot of time to process it, I'm writing my review with my first impressions. 

First of all, I find the cover to be absolutely stunning. Every time I look at it, I find myself taken aback by the beauty of it. I see Sunja and her sons, and my heart breaks for all they will go through. This is definitely a book worthy of discussion, and I can't wait to talk about it on Tuesday with my book groups. 

In a nutshell, this novel is about four generations of Koreans living in Japan during the 1920's-through 1990. I confess to be completely ignorant of the Korean-Japanese tension, and totally in the dark about the discrimination and awful treatment of Koreans who were forced to flee Korea and settle in Japan as political conflicts, World War 2, and the division of Korea into North and South took place. The novel starts in Korea, in the small fishing  village of Yeongdo and the family of Hoonie, his wife Yangjin, and their only child, Sunja. Japan has annexed Korea, and the economy is terrible. Hoonie dies, leaving Yangjin and teenaged Sunja to run a boardinghouse to makes ends meet. Hard working women; so hard working I feel a bit ashamed at how easy my day to day life is, and how blessed I am to have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and the money to pay for lights, water, and heat. 

Sonja meets wealthy businessman Hansu while going to market one day. He's drawn to her, and they begin a friendship that leads to an affair. Sunja is very young (15), and finds herself pregnant. Hansu is married to a wealthy Japanese woman, and cannot and will not marry Sunja. He is very pleased she's pregnant, hoping for a boy after having three daughters with his wife. Sunja rejects his offer of being his "Korean wife", and sends him away. Being young, and pregnant, Sunja has very few options, and her condition will bring shame to her family name and her mother. Isak, a young man who is staying at their boardinghouse, decides to marry Sunja and take on the responsibility of being husband and father to her unborn child. Isak is on his way to Japan to work as a pastor at a church. His health is very poor, but his desire to help Sunja overrides  everything. 

Isak and Sunja arrive in Japan and are stunned at the treatment of Koreans living there. Subjected to harassment, living in slums and extremely filthy conditions, Koreans are seen as dirt. Isak and Sunja, living with Yoseb and Kyunghee (Isak's brother and sis-in-law), struggle to make ends meet and strive to survive daily life. Life takes turns that are tragic and heartbreaking, and as the years go by, the family stays together and endures strife that strengthens them rather than tears them down. 

Hansu is still around, however. He is powerful, and rich, and keeps tabs on Sunja and Noa, his son. I found Hansu to be a very compelling character. A man who is torn between two families, trying to do what is right, and still, after all those years, loves Sunja and won't give up. The relationship between Sunja and Hansu was one of the best parts of this novel. 

There's so much more to this generational saga. I am so grateful for reading this novel, and learning about the Korean-Japanese strife that continues on today. I had no idea. Family, identity, self-worth, hard work, sacrifice, national identity, and love are all huge themes that run throughout the pages of this novel. It's definitely an epic, multi-generational novel that will leave you breathless when you finish the last page. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Rating: 5/6 for a look at a corner of the world and a history that I was not familiar with at all. The layers of history, emotion, and political strife that echo through generations of family are hard-hitting and incredibly moving. Sunja is one of the most memorable characters I've come across this year. 

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