Review Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

For those who missed the zoom event please see the youtube recording.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Presented by Amanda Khongwir

Review by Sheena Shahani

Call it the ‘K’ magic or the ‘K’ tsunami, it has taken over and engulfed urban India. We love everything about South Korea at the moment, be it their pop, their cuisine, their schmaltzy soaps or edge-of-the-seat thrillers, even their soft tones of make-up. So it’s no surprise that The Book Club Pune featured on Sunday March 6, 2022 a novel by a South Korean-born author – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Eight months earlier My Year Abroad by Chang rae-Lee had been presented by Sonal Khot. Both authors are South Korean-born and US citizens.

The presenter of Pachinko, a first-time voice on our forum, Amanda Khongwir, is an educator with a master’s degree (TESOL) from John Moores University (UK). She works with the Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad, to train teachers at government schools in various parts of Telangana.

The presentation of the book was timely as the drama series Pachinko will debut globally on Apple TV+ on March 25, 2022. The series will unfold over eight episodes. Amanda’s presentation of the book served as an appetiser for both those who have read the novel and those who are yet to read it.

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in the early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. Pachinko takes place between the years of 1910 and 1989, a period that included the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II. As a historical novel, these events play a central role in Pachinko, influencing the characters’ decisions like Sunja’s move to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history, a tale spanning 80 years.  Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family and identity.

“Aspects of hope, survival, family values, perseverance, and most importantly identity and the idea of belonging are the major themes here,” Amanda explained. She asked an important question:  “What does it feel like to be an outsider in a foreign land, to be a second-class citizen in another country?”

The Korean condimented side dish Kimchi and the Japanese pinball game Pachinko are also major characters in the novel. While the preparation from her home kitchen and sale of Kimchi helped Sunja support her family after her husband’s premature death, the pinball game Pachinko made her son Mozasu a multi-millionaire. The eponymous Pachinko, an extremely popular game played in gambling parlours, appears frequently in the novel, but it’s not simply the business in which Sunja ’s son, like many disadvantaged Koreans living in Japan, finds employment. The game symbolises the interplay of chance, luck, opportunity, ability, frustration, and higher purpose that govern life for Sunja’s family.

Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American author and journalist Min Jin Lee. Published in 2017, Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a New York Times bestseller and was included on over 75 best books of the year lists. It is the first novel written for an adult, English-speaking audience about Japanese-Korean culture. Her debut novel Free Food for Millionaires was published in 2007.

The discussion that followed Amanda’s presentation centred on the topics of human cruelty, wars and interconnectedness. Amanda likes to read generational dramas, and we hope to see and hear more from her in the future.

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