It’s the last Saturday of the month, which means it’s Give a Sh*t Book Club time! This month’s book is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a generational saga following a Korean family through much of the 20th century. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I think the honor was well deserved.
Pachinko came out in February of last year, but I had put off reading it because of its length. However, this year I’ve made a bookish resolution to slow down my reading and tackle some of the “bricks” that I’ve been putting off, so Pachinko seemed like a great choice for our first book club book of 2018. I had heard from various sources that it was a page-turner, and holy wow they were not kidding! Once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down.
I think what makes Pachinko so readable is a combination of the accessible prose and the appeal of the characters. I’m not saying the writing is plain or lacks finesse; in fact, quite the opposite, as only the most talented writers can make the reading of their work feel effortless. I appreciated that the writing wasn’t too dense or flowery because it helped propel me through the story. I really cared about the characters and had to know what was going to happen to them!
My favorite stories, the ones that stick with me the longest, are ones that illuminate the divine humanity in their characters. That probably sounds cheesy, but what I mean is the characters are treated as whole but flawed human beings, and even as they make poor decisions or bad luck befalls them, there are glimmers of hope and kindness that give them strength. That resonates with my own life experiences, that even in the dark there is at least the possibility of a spark of light. The characters in Pachinko carried this spark with them—even through tragedy, they kept going.
And some of the tragedies hit me in the gut. Noa’s suicide after his mother found him and by her presence threatened to expose him as Korean was somehow both unsurprising and totally wrenching. I ached for all of them. His death powerfully illustrated, though, how the shame and stigma of being Korean in Japan has affected people’s lives. This is when I think historical fiction is at its most powerful, when it shows us what life was like for real people and allows us to understand and empathize with them in a way we might not be able to do otherwise.
And can I say how fascinating it was to read historical fiction taking place during World War II that wasn’t from an American or European perspective? It was called a “world war” for a reason, after all, and through reading Pachinko I realized there were holes in my knowledge when it came to WW2 as experienced by Korean and Japanese people. I was also largely ignorant of the fallout of the division of Korea and the way it left many Koreans living in Japan stranded, without a homeland.
I really enjoyed Pachinko, and I hope you did too! Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Can’t wait to hear what you think!