Min Jin Lee’s epic novel, Pachinko, spans four generations of a Korean family living through the twentieth century and explores powerful themes of belonging and identity. It was a National Book Award Finalist for 2017, and has received praise from former US President Barack Obama, the New York Times, and many, many others.
And it was not the book for me.
I can tell this is an objectively good book: the prose is clean, the plot twists are well-placed and unexpected, the characters are unique and interesting, and the message is profound. The first line is utterly, earth-movingly perfect: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Subjectively speaking, however, Pachinko just isn’t my type, and I wasn’t happy with my reading experience. Because of this, I really struggled to give Pachinko an appropriate star rating.
How are you supposed to rate a book on a simple, wordless, nuance-free scale of one star through five when you didn’t enjoy it but know that isn’t the book’s fault?
I’ve chosen not to give Pachinko a star rating. I’ve already said everything I can objectively say about the quality of the novel, and what follows is an examination of what did and didn’t work for me. Hopefully, if you’re debating whether or not to read Pachinko, this will be useful to you.
Pachinko is, first and foremost, a multi-generational family saga. The pacing is uneven — it has to be uneven; how else could Lee fit four generations of a family into one novel? There are time skips: a baby is born, and then the narrative jumps six years into the future. In spite of its size, Pachinko feels very compact, like there could have been more material but it was omitted for the sake of a more concise narrative. I found myself reading very slowly and trying to understand the significance of each scene — in a book where it feels like space on the page is at a premium, surely each snapshot of the characters’ lives has to mean something? I was totally hooked by the story and invested in it, but poring over the text in this way was tiring for me, and I was definitely despairing a little by the halfway point.
There is also a large cast of characters who enter and exit the narrative at various points, some of them very rapidly. There is no rhythm to this. The novel has no singular, proven protagonist. Characters live, marry, sometimes have children, and eventually die. A character who existed in the narrative for a long time had an off-screen death that was only offhandedly mentioned later, which was disconcerting for me as a reader. Because the novel felt as though it had no actual protagonist, the narration seemed strangely emotionally detached from the people whose lives it intimately followed. It was like we were examining Sunja, Noa, Hansu, and the others through a microscope; the narration cast an unforgiving gimlet eye upon the characters, and every small bit of warmth and affection toward them I encountered under its gaze felt very precious.
Lee’s prose is very terse. Everything extraneous has been cut away, which contributes to the feeling of compactness that I mentioned earlier. Every action the characters undertook and every word they spoke had meaning and contributed to a greater picture of the life of their family. On one hand, this really drew me in and made me concentrate on what I was reading. On the other, few concessions were made to description that fell outside the realm of Chekhov’s Gun, and as a fan of lush descriptive writing I found myself frustrated more often than not. Lee is definitely much more focused on what her characters are doing, saying, and feeling than their surroundings.
Was this deliberate? I think so. Pachinko‘s intended audience seem to be immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, people who have sacrificed parts of themselves for both survival and acceptance the way the characters have done. I think Lee is trying to communicate the universality and timelessness of the immigrant experience, which is never not relevant, rather than grounding her narrative in a specific time and place and speaking of feelings and concepts that only occurred there and then.
One thing I did absolutely love about this book was the characterization of the female characters. Kyunghee, Sunja, and Yangjin all stood out to be as resilient women of their time who carried their loved ones through the worst hardships. Pachinko largely does not take place in an era of Japanese or Korean history where women have many rights, but Sunja and Kyunghee each take their destinies into their own control in ways that felt natural and even beautiful. I was really cheering for them and their defiance.
Overall, however, this book left me unsatisfied. I cannot deny the way it made me think and empathize with characters who have led lives vastly different from mine and better understand multiple eras from a perspective that often goes ignored, but just the way it was structured and written was a major turn-off for me. I understand the choices Min Jin Lee made as an author and how they successfully contributed to the story she wanted to create. I think this is a good book, but it isn’t my book, and that’s okay.
Read the first chapter of Pachinko for free on readinggroupguides.com
Read a review of Pachinko (with spoilers) by Jean Zimmerman on npr.org
Read another review of Pachinko (with spoilers) by Tash Aw on theguardian.com