December 17, 2018
There are times when I feel as though I am the only person who still desperately clings onto books. I crave the unique beauty that comes from both the story within as well the physical act of reading. Gripping the ends tightly, as your eyes eagerly scan the words before you. Turning each page with your hand, hungry for what surprises lie in wait. Perhaps the greatest feeling is when you become so invested in a book, that the concept of time seems to just melt away. I have read too many books to count in my short lifetime, yet only a select few have been able to captivate me in such a way. The most recent being “Pachinko,” an epic historical novel by Min Jin Lee.
Lee begins by transporting the reader to the small fishing village of Yeongdo off the coast of Korea. It is 1883, and a humble fisherman and his wife have decided to take up lodgers in their home into order to raise more money to support themselves and their crippled son, Hoonie. As an adult, Hoonie carries on the family lodging business and eventually has a child of his own, a beautiful daughter named Sunja. Unfortunately, he is taken by tuberculosis too soon, forcing his wife and daughter to take over the business. When Sunja is impregnated by a man she cannot marry, a young Christian minister named Baek Isak offers to take her to Japan as his wife to eliminate the shame she has brought upon her name. This marks the beginning of an incredible saga of a family struggling to survive as outcast Koreans in Japan during wartime.
I cannot even begin to describe the genius of this book. The summary above does not do the story justice, not even in the slightest. Lee doesn’t just give her characters a name and mediocre description. She pulls you into their story. She breathes life into them. A life given to them by the true accounts of Koreans who experienced the hardships of immigrant life firsthand.
As I read through the entire novel, I became attached to every single person in each generation of what began as a simple fisherman’s family. I celebrated when Hoonie was born and learned to work hard for his family despite his twisted foot and cleft palate. I shook my head in disgust when the smooth-talking, Koh Hansu took advantage of Sunja’s innocence. I cried, I laughed, I experienced every emotion right alongside her characters.
Lee’s writing style is so simple, yet so engrossing. The sentences are short and to the point. She never says more than what needs to be said, but at the same time, she isn’t writing the bare minimum. She delicately chooses her words and carefully gives shape to her vision in a way that is hardly seen in modern literature anymore. With just a paragraph she had tears streaming down my face. With a sentence, she had my heart swelling with pride. Her ability to captivate the reader is truly a work of art. She engages the mind and captures the soul, reaching an impressive depth of emotion. It was so real. So raw.
Being a second generation Korean myself, her masterful storytelling hit very close to home. Knowing that my own family experienced trials similar to the ones described in the book, I couldn’t help but have an even greater appreciation for my ancestors, specifically my grandparents. These stories seem so far in the past for me, but for them, it was their entire life. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the background of my culture and discover a completely different side of the war that lead to the split of my home country.
Even if you’re not Korean, Japanese, or particularly interested in history, I would 100 percent recommend reading this novel. It took me on an unbelievable journey I hadn’t known existed. It taught me to value hard work and family on an entirely new level within a matter of hours, and for that I thank Min Jin Lee.