An ambitious multigenerational family saga evocative of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, is engaging, complex, and highly relevant to the modern immigration experience. The main protagonist is Sunja, daughter of a poor Korean tenant farmer born just after the turn of the century. At first, the novel strikes us as economical in description, but the bleakness of Korean life before WWII is masterfully conveyed in Lee’s spare style.
After the death of her father, the untimely demise of good men being a major theme, Sunja’s mother takes in boarders to make ends meet during the worsening pre-war economy. At 15, Sunja’s world is turned suddenly and forever upside down by the love of a fascinating older man who is rich, powerful, and the harbinger of secrets. The child she bears him, and her prideful refusal to become his mistress, are decisions that will determine not only Sunja’s own fate, but that of her family for generations to come.
Lee’s stoic style continues to suit her subject matter, as surviving in Japanese-occupied Korea becomes more difficult and Sunja moves to Japan with her new husband, a frail young Christian minister who married her to save her honor. But life for a Korean immigrant in Osaka proves no easier.
Despite its starkness, there is a chaotic intimacy to the story which makes it seem more of a personal testament, somewhat robbing it of the universal message the reader buys in for. The novel’s unabashed ethnic pride also plays a role, Koreans as unfailingly steadfast in their cultural morality despite universal victimization by the Japanese. Perhaps this may be forgiven Lee given the novel’s realism, but the hurried tone of the final chapters of the saga, and the bleak conclusion, leaves the reader with few other takeaways. A gripping read overall.