Okay, so I might be a little biased, but this book is amazing.
Yes, I say that as somebody who claims Pachinko as my favorite novel, but I think it’s worth a read. Here’s why.
This story takes place over the course of four generations in one family. The main plot begins when the main character, Sunja, changes the course of her family’s lives forever.
Sunja is the daughter of a disabled boarding house keeper and his wife, and she never expected to leave her home (an island close to Busan, South Korea). That is, until she meets Hansu, a much older, wealthy fish broker who takes an interest in her. It’s the 1930s, South Korea is occupied by Japan, and Koreans are growing poorer by the day. This makes Hansu stand out to Sunja, especially since she is an impressionable young girl. She ends up having his child, but he can’t marry her.
Eventually Sunja meets a minister named Baek Isak. He’s staying at the boarding house on his way to Osaka, Japan, where he plans to live with his brother, Yoseb. Hearing about Sunja’s circumstances, Isak decides to marry her and adopt her child as his own, but with one condition: she lives with him in Japan.
From there, the story not only takes us into Sunja and Isak’s family’s lives as immigrants in Japan, but it shows us how the world changes throughout time. The story shifts to show us the perspective of Sunja’s sons, and eventually her grandson. But at the heart of this story is one mother’s choice built upon sacrifices by generations before her.
This is a long novel about many aspects of life itself, so there is a lot to unpack. Honestly, I find myself learning new things every time I read it. Here’s what stands out most to me.
This book questions commonly seen notions of femininity. Sunja is beautiful in her own way, but she doesn’t subscribe to stereotypical ideas of beauty. This is partly because, after having her first son, she feels shameful if she draws too much attention to herself. She also doesn’t know how to make herself look ‘beautiful’ for the time period she’s in. She is clean and gentle, yet strong, and this is what makes her most beautiful.
Family is another huge factor. It’s shown as one’s sense of belonging and, in the case of the Baek family, the only connections they can trust in a foreign country. This segues into the theme of assimilation into a foreign country and culture. We see not only what it’s like to be Koreans in Japan for Sunja’s generation, but also what it’s like for her sons. Eventually, we see what it’s like for her to have a grandson who considers himself Japanese, because Japan is his homeland.
Sacrifice is mentioned a lot, especially in relation to sacrifices we make for family that can impact generations. In this novel, everybody sacrifices something so that their children and grandchildren can have more than they did. And that isn’t taken lightly. This also shows us the impact of one’s choices. Even a small choice, a truth told or untold, or a person loved from afar can create a ripple effect that lasts decades.
There isn’t much to say here other than this: you should read this book if you want something that could touch you on a level so deep, you’ll think about this story long after finishing it. There are elements almost anyone can relate to and notable lessons buried within a plot that keeps me hooked every time I read this novel (which has been a lot).
Warning: You might cry and potentially throw the book at a wall. This is a normal reaction. But trust me, you’ll probably finish this book and thank me for the recommendation.
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