Min Jin Lee

Book cover

Elise told me I had to read Pachinko, and she was right. It’s a family history about four generations of a family that moves from Korea to Japan, covering most of the 20th century. This kind of story is really up my alley anyway, but the writing is also extremely good. The characters are virtually all extremely well-written, which is difficult to do in a book with so many characters over many generations. This definitely goes for the main characters (Hoonie, Sunja, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon), but there are so many excellent supporting characters as well–Hansu, Yoseb, Kyunghee, Isak, Changho, Haruki Totoyama, and Goro, just off the top of my head. They are all written as complex individuals, each partaking in both goodness and weakness to some degree. Even characters with very small parts (such as Bokhee and Dokhee) are empathetically written. Lee writes in a direct and simple style, and her overall approach is heavily realist. A key issue in the book is the history and treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan, something of which I knew nothing before reading it. The book also touches on very deep issues of family, identity, religion, and self-worth, in ways that never feel heavy-handed or didactic. Lee even manages to find a touching closing scene without tying everything up too tidily.

I was lucky enough to hear Min Jin Lee speak (and read a book excerpt) at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn in fall 2017, which made me appreciate the book all the more. She was writing it for about 20 years before finally publishing it, including extensive in-person research in Japan and a near-complete rewrite more than a decade in. She’s a very likeable presence and talks with both professional seriousness and good humor about her work.

I am still wondering about the opening line of the book: “History has failed us, but no matter.” It is interesting in that it’s (I believe) the only line that appears to be spoken directly by the author or narrator. By the end of the book, it’s certainly clear that there are many ways in which the characters have been hurt by the historical (cultural, political, economic, religious) circumstances in which they lived–due to their gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, parentage, and so on. But is this a case of “history” having “failed us”? Is “history” an entity from which we ought to expect something, an entity with an implicit task that it can succeed or fail at, done for our benefit? It seems odd to think about it this way, although I think we probably do take this implicit view fairly often. Perhaps this is also the significance of the second clause of the sentence, which is a sort of immediate neutralization of the first. I suppose much of the book is concerned with how individuals come to terms with their own histories, and the sentiment expressed in the first line is one way of doing so. It’s tempting to think of it as the author’s preferred way of doing so, but especially after seeing her speak, I don’t believe it is. I might say it is something more like “History has failed us, and it does matter, but we have to go on regardless.” Perhaps the line is a paradox for us to meditate on.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars