Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Ordinarily, if a book I’ve read has thousands of reviews on Goodreads, I’ll do a literary mixtape instead of a review. Because really, what more can I say about a text if 20,000 others have shared their thoughts? Conversely, there’s always an audience for eighties music videos paired with some choice quotes (I think).

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has 266,391 ratings and 26,202 reviews on Goodreads. But there will be no mixtape, for the simple reason that although I found this family saga engrossing in terms of plot, there was nothing particularly compelling about the style of Lee’s writing. It’s a really good story. It’s a memorable story. The writing is straightforward.

So, without a bunch of marked passages to put to music, and without writing a full review, I will share the single thing that stood out – shame. This story, which is focused on the lives of a Korean family who moves to Japan, examines shame at many levels – personal, cultural, historical – without labeling it directly. Can shame be explored delicately, or is it by nature, blunt? Although it begins with an ‘obvious’ shame – an unwed mother – Lee weaves wisps of shame into so many scenes – a hare lip; school lunches that are hidden because of the stink of kimchi; and a boy dropping letters from his name to conceal its Korean-ness.

She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? …. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

And some of the things I wondered – do we ever ‘get over’ shame? (My sense is that it is the bedrock, and rarely do we drill through all that we’re feeling and really, truly examine the bedrock). And is there such a thing as inter-generational shame at the broadest level, as there is inter-generational trauma? And what is the opposite of shame? Pride? (There’s plenty of that in Pachinko as well).

If you’re after a longish family sage (496 pages) with an interesting historical context, Pachinko should hit the mark.

3.5/5 Solid.

I received my copy of Pachinko from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunja makes pumpkin taffy, known as Hobakyeot. Couldn’t find a recipe but you can watch it being made here.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 2): Belfast 9°-17° and Melbourne 8°-15°

7 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Interesting review. I liked it, but got irritated with one sex scene late in the book and with one character late in the book. But after reading your review, I clicked over to my review and nope, no quotes. I gave it the same rating–3.5

  3. I read this book several years ago, and find the good impression it made on me still remains. I think I read it at the right time: shortly after being in South Korea, and spending time in Busan. It did much to explain the ambivalent relationship the South Koreans have with the Japanese.

  4. Your winter isn’t much cooler than our summer temperatures!

    I’ve had this book on my radar for a while but wasn’t sure whether it was just a family saga. Sounds like there is more to it than that

  5. I loved and reviewed Pachinko in April this year. Brilliant book. I thought it was even more interesting for me since I lived as a German in the Netherlands for twenty years and had similar experiences. But I review my books anyway as part of my former book club since the members live all over the globe by now.

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