Pachinko by Lee Min-jin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a family saga of a Korean family living in Japan, starting from about the time of Japanese expansionism in the 1930s and taking us up to recent times. As usual in my reviews, I won’t attempt a synopsis or repeat the blurb – you know where to look.
What I liked about the book was the depiction of the racism of the Japanese to the Koreans. Seen through Korean eyes, even hard-working, honest Koreans are simply assumed by Japanese to be indolent thugs, un-educatable, etc. The close ties that bind the outposts of Korean society in Japan are depicted with a sharp eye to the divisions that persist, and the alienation suffered by those who are born to Korean parents in Japan, too Japanese for Koreans yet never Japanese enough for the Japanese, are likewise brought out.
What I didn’t like about the book was twofold. Firstly, I kept finding myself a victim of the sudden change of point of view: just as I felt I was getting into a character’s head, the point of view would bounce me into some other character’s, with the result that I never got to know any of them. By the time I was a third of the way through the book, I’d stopped trusting the point of view, so stopped trying to understand how the characters were motivated. Secondly, it really annoyed me that all the main characters who die do so off the page. One character is dumped at home by the secret police: he admonishes his son to go to school (almost a cliche), and that’s the last we ever hear of him. Even his son appears to go through life with no particular memory of what should have been a very traumatic, life-forming moment.
Combine the two of these, and I was left with the feeling that what I’d read was more of a treatment for a movie (or series) than a novel. There are some good moments, some treachery, some revealing twists, but the book lacked emotional depth. Given the inherent historical moment of the situation that motivates the plot, the drama of the parts and the isolation of the characters, this was a book that could have been much, much better.