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Review of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko | Book Review

by Isabelle Hampton-Zabotti

‘History has failed us, but no matter,’ begins the expansive historical epic that is Pachinko. In just under 500 pages, Min Jin Lee’s ambitious second novel takes us on a journey spanning four generations. Sunja, the main narrative voice, began her life in 1910 Busan; through time, she and her descendants survive war, annexation, loss, and destitution to ultimately become members of the wider Korean diaspora. They struggle every day to find their place in the world as history turns its back on them.

Pachinko is East of Eden from across the Pacific, yet it is written with quiet, humble and unyieldingly resolute women at its core.

Women, like Sunja, who had never had a voice in the making of history, and unlike men, have never even considered their right to one, let alone demanded it. Min Jin Lee’s writing rejects embellishment, preferring to direct complexity to her characters. We meet good people who make bad choices and bad people who do good, and learn that the line between help and harm is as blurred as the line between love and hate. She accurately depicts the struggle of the second-generation immigrant who finds themselves between two states but at home in neither. Yet despite its heavy themes, Pachinko never forgets to balance its darker moments with passages so beautifully and hopefully written that we are reminded why, with all the suffering in the world, we choose to live on.

Taking its name from the pachinko parlours that were popularised in post-war Japan, Min Jin Lee’s novel teaches us that life is a gamble, often fixed by powers far out of our reach. Her characters must ask themselves: do I play by the rules of the game, or do I create my own? Neither decision comes without a cost. Yet, like the pachinko games, the game of life is also a game of luck─and therefore, no matter how slim the odds are, is never without hope.


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