Review of Pachinko, Feb 2021
First things first. It’s a solid piece of historical fiction, based on 10 years of research, personal experience and knowledge of both Korea and Japan. We have learned a lot! (Granted, most of us were starting at a zero base of knowledge) The narrative spans almost 100 years of the Korean immigration experience in Japan. And yes, a map and a glossary would be nice - but would that have put us off from reading it in the first place? It didn’t actually feel like we were being lectured on history during the story which feels like a strength.
The great metaphor around which the novel spins, is the betting driven game of pachinko. A game of some skill - but mostly luck - and somewhat skewed so that in fact nobody wins too much. There is no real choice in how you play, the balls skitter down however they fall and the player can’t really do much about it.
This ‘inevitability’ and sense of luck, or lack of it, pervades the novel. Despite decades of effort, resilience and ultimately wealth accumulation, the happiness levels of Sunja and her family increase only marginally. The ultimate suicide fate of Noa, the child who has tried so hard to assimilate into his adopted country, seems to suggest that no Korean will ever achieve true happiness in Japan.
Many of us felt that the first half of the book was more cohesive, with Sunja and her early years story more detailed and engaging. As the pace rattles on through decades and generations we lose a level of empathy, and the narrative becomes blunter and choppier. There isn’t a great deal of digging into the emotions of the main characters. However, having reached the 1990’s by the end of the book there is a nod to the contemporary immigrant, illustrating how much more control Phoebe and Solomon have over their own lives, which is an interesting contrast.
I just read that Pachinko has been optioned for a TV series ( Apple TV ) during 2021. As the popularity of the book has suggested ( 85% of participating book club readers gave it at least 4/5) this will undoubtedly be a successful TV series. I just hope it’s not so relentlessly sad and unempowering. We found the inevitability of the situation quite depressing at times.
As an interesting sidenote, one of our readers had in the past visited Korea and Japan ( oh, the memories of travel! ) and I’m attaching her video clip of a food market in South Korea. She stressed the absolute difference between the repressed formality of the Japanese, versus the noisy, warm, relaxed nature of the Koreans, for whom food and socialising are all important. A great insight into these two neighbouring nations.