...[a] stunning novel ... Like most memorable novels, Pachinko resists summary. In this sprawling book, history itself is a character. Pachinko is about outsiders, minorities and the politically disenfranchised. But it is so much more besides ... Despite the compelling sweep of time and history, it is the characters and their tumultuous lives that propel the narrative. Small details subtly reveal the characters’ secret selves and build to powerful moments ... The numerous shifts are occasionally jolting, but what is gained is a compassionate, clear gaze at the chaotic landscape of life itself. In this haunting epic tale, no one story seems too minor to be briefly illuminated.
Pachinko is the kind of book that can open your eyes and fill them with tears at the same time ... We are in Buddenbrooks territory here, tracing a family dynasty over a sprawl of seven decades, and comparing the brilliantly drawn Pachinko to Thomas Mann's classic first novel is not hyperbole. Lee bangs and buffets and pinballs her characters through life, love and sorrow, somehow making her vast, ambitious narrative seem intimate ... Lee deftly sketches a half-familiar, half-foreign but oftentimes harsh new world of a Korean immigrant in imperialist Japan ... This is honest writing, fiction that looks squarely at what is, both terrible and wonderful.
In Pachinko, history serves as a backdrop for narratives of resilience and loss, and major historical disturbances are treated with understatement ... Lee shines in highlighting the complexities of being an immigrant and striving for a better life when resigned to a second-class status. In particular, she explores the mechanisms of internalized oppression and the fraught position of being a 'well-behaved' member of a maligned group ... Throughout Pachinko, it’s acts of kindness and love. The slow accumulation of those moments create a home to return to again and again, even in the worst of times.
Lee is an obvious fan of classic English literature, and she uses omniscient narration and a large cast of characters to create a social novel in the Dickensian vein ... The novel is frequently heartbreaking — its scope doesn’t deter attachment to individual characters, and when bad things happen, the swift pacing and wide-angle view make them seem even more brutal, if at times too sudden. This is the rare 500-page novel that would benefit from some extra flesh, particularly in the last third.
The story that follows is a deeply wrenching one of migration, circling around themes of in-between identities, belonging and acceptance. The latter is never granted for Sunja’s family: the Korean in Japan remains a perpetual outsider in Pachinko ... We never feel history being spoon-fed to us: it is wholly absorbed into character and story, which is no mean feat for a novel covering almost a century of history ... Pachinko tells many people’s stories and deftly brings its large ensemble of characters alive. Occasionally the plot is jarred by too-neat twists, such as the convenient return of Sunja’s lover, announced on the same page as the death of her husband. The biggest off-note, though, is Lee’s treatment of Noa, who is abruptly discarded in a sudden death, his children’s stories left dangling.
Spanning nearly 100 years and moving from Korea at the start of the 20th century to pre- and postwar Osaka and, finally, Tokyo and Yokohama, the novel reads like a long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land. Min Jin Lee meticulously reconstructs the relatively overlooked history of the large ethnic-Korean community in Japan ... The novel’s multi-generational narrative allows this rich history to unfold at a pace that is beguilingly peaceful ... Much of the novel’s authority is derived from its weight of research, which brings to life everything from the fishing village on the coast of the East Sea in early 20th-century Korea to the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka – the intimate, humanising details of a people striving to carve out a place for themselves in the world. Vivid and immersive, Pachinko is a rich tribute to a people that history seems intent on erasing.
To what extent can Japan, a society that despises Koreans, ever be these characters’ home? To what extent is Noa, who wants only to be educated and virtuous like Isak, the man who raised him, still Hansu’s son? What does it mean to be connected to another person? To a nation? Lee offers us no simple answers. But we don’t read novels for simple answers, do we? We read novels to get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. Lee does that for us here, and she does it while maintaining a light touch. Lee is not an author interested in dazzling you with her prose or reinventing the novel form (Pachinko’s structure is most like that of 19th-century British novels), preferring instead to keep her story and characters front and center. But somehow, she’s there on every page, present but invisible.