Injustice, prejudice, unfair abuse, war, poverty and wealth take center stage in a novel that will take readers back to Japan beginning in 1910 to the present time. A family of Korean immigrants torn apart by war, a caste system and lack of acceptance of race differences and wealth. A parent is dismayed when her son is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Hoonie is the central character at the beginning and although he is deformed you grow to love and understand his struggles and his will to survive. Thinking her son would never marry the matchmaker of the village arranges for him to marry Yangjin who is only 15. Sometimes things happen and they both fell into a steady rhythm and their love bloomed in a different way and the respect he showed for her is more than most people or women sometimes get today. Losing several children when Yanglin gives birth to Sunja their family becomes stronger and his love for her is powerful. Sunja is a smart young girl and she becomes the center of the story. They run a boarding house and get paid a nominal amount to care for these people and keep them safe, warm, clean and fed. But, Sunja works, does laundry, goes the market for her mother and father but when he dies their lives drastically change and things become really hard when she falls prey to a rick yakuza, named Koh Hansu and winds up having her life turned upside down and in a turmoil.
Walking together, meeting to collect mushrooms and not ever knowing that he was married and thinking she would make him a great wife. Harsh realities set in when she learns she is having his child and then finds out the father, Koh Hansu is married with a wife and three daughters. Sunja is proud, smart and is disgraced and refused to have anything more to do with this man turning her back on him. Isak Baek is a young minister that she and her mother nursed back to health and has asked for her hand in marriage so that her child would be born and his birth placed in the registry. Husbands are loyal to their wives and things change drastically when she and her husband leave her mother’s home to go to Osaka to live with his brother and his wife. Living in squalor more difficult with less than in the boarding house we learn about the prejudice, injustices and hate inflicted on the innocent Korean people by the Japanese. Rude, unyielding, degrading and treating them lower than the lowest insect on this earth, you can’t help but feel the anger within the people and yourself at the mistreatment they received. Money is hard pressed to come by and they lived under poor conditions and the scenes were hard to digest at times. Spoken to like they were low class animals and treated like dirt was unsettling to read as many readers might not have known or realized what these people endured. Taxes were always owed, compelled to register time and again as if they were not citizens of any land the author describes in vivid detail what these people endured. Sunja gives birth to Noa and Mozasu who are amazing sons/ Noa is smart, deals with bullies in school but never falters from his studies and is one of the top students in his class as his father and the man working for the other minster are falsely arrested and when Isak returns he is deathly ill. Meeting his brother and his wife we learn that women were not allowed to work and his father makes that clear but when Sunja realizes that she needs to provide for her children what she does is truly remarkable. Two sons pointing their lives in different directions each one bent on their own journey.
Then things become violent and people are killed for owning land and Sunja, her sister-in-law, her sons and her family have to move from the farm and find themselves back in Osaka. Isak died from his illnesses after being released from prison and her brother in law, came home burned and ill after getting a better job but things would never be the same. As the author introduces us to the Japanese version of a game that everyone loves, pachinko something like pinball. These parlors kept people in business and the game reflects on the haphazard way these people live.
Life during this time is like a game as the people had to volley for position and using the flipper on the machine hoping for the initial strike of the ball and then seeing what happens. Life is like a pachinko game you never know the outcome until the first strike is made.
Life is like a machine where the outcome comes from how hard you pull the plunger but these people are waiting as Japan annexed Korea and took over the South Korean City of Busan. Sunja and her two sons at first lived and worked on a farm but later on they moved into another house but little did she realize that Koh Hansu was the rich Korean businessman that made sure he would come back into her life and that of his son Noa who is smart and wanted to go to the university but her other son did not. Mozasu wanted to be the bad Korean and got into trouble making sure he would not have to go to school but get a job and make lots of money to help his family. Going to work in a Pachinko parlor would be his salvation. Sunja and her sister in law decided to go into business and make kimchi and black sugar candy. But when a businessman who owned two restaurants wanted them to work for him they hesitated at first but later would relent. Hiring them at a huge salary was unheard of but when Isak was arrested with one of his fellow churchmen named Hu things changes and then he dies not long after being released. Everyone needs to bow to the Emperor and they were arrest for not doing that. Working on a sweet potato farm was their first stroke of luck but then they wanted to go home to a country plagued with violence, famine and hungry. Mozasu is their salvation for money now as he becomes the foreman of a pachinko parlor and his brother goes to college in Japan.
WWII is about to happen and the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki and learning and knowing Japanese and passing for Japanese was a plus as Noa uses his Japanese name. learns the culture, the language and dress. Not wanted to be Korean. Some were proud of their heritage while others denied it.
. While Mozasu is not working for the Pachinko Parlor and is managing seven parlors his boss makes sure he is outfitted properly and his biological father is paying for Noa’s fees and apartment but he does not know the relationship and his mother is embarrassed at having to allow this.
Added in her brother-in-law’s wife has been approached by the their border to marry him when her husband Yoseb dies. Denying her identity at times and falling prey to being subservient he goes home to tend to her sick and demanding husband. If Noa’s real heritage is revealed he might lose it all and the tensions build throughout the novel and the realities of truths are hidden or denied. If you are not aware of the history of these people author Min Jin Lee describes if so vividly and creatively you would think you were there going on the many journeys of these people. Her mother now brought to live with her by Hansu and Noa realizing that this man is rich and adds some comfort to his life, he unreadily accepts his offers. The timeline is over 50 years and at times you wonder by Sunja remains silent when in our country a woman would speak up and answer for herself. Sunja has been working for all of her life and never complains yet she finds no time to look at the world and enjoy life.
Meeting a childhood friend Mozasu makes him promise to come to the Pachinko parlor to see him while he take a young seamstress and himself to English class. Yumi is special to him but will it work out?
Things take an ugly turn when Noa’s girlfriend decides to come to his lunch with Hansu unannounced. Breaking off with her would start a chain of events that would lead him to questioning his mother about his birth. Learning that Hansu was his father angered him and all that the man wanted to do for him and did was undone in a flash. The man is a crook, into drugs and other illegal activities and uses hardcore violence to make his point even though his brother works for him in his Pachinko Parlors. When his mother searches for Hansu and begs his wife to tell her where he is and what happened to Noa she is rebuffed. When she does find him she learns that he has no idea where his/her son might be and things are different as Noa decides to go to the same Parlors and get a job as a bookkeeper.
Dealing with letters from Noa and not knowing where he is makes his mother turn to Hansu even though she wants nothing to do with him. He wants to know his son and although he is married with four children and a wonderful wife, will it stop him from working in the Pachinko Parlor and what is his motive for working for the one man he hates the most. Then Haiki comes to live with his wife in Yokomara making Mozasu’s son Solomon thrilled to have the police detective close by. But, after his wife dies, Mozasu has to decide how if at all to move on and his girlfriend was not the true answer. The police detective and his wife seem at times to play both sides of the fence without saying anything to each other.
Solomon is Mozasu’s son and really bright and resourceful but when he becomes involved with Hana his father’s girlfriend’s daughter things spiral in a different direction and even his girlfriend Phoebe does not want anything to do with her and later him. When a certain land deal goes bad, his boss fires him thinking that the seller’s death was suspect. The ending is tragic as Noa finally faces his mother, Sunja never ever realizes that life is wonderful, she faces suffering and sacrifices and even her own mother condemns her before she dies. The final scene at the cemetery is quite revealing as Sunja realizes at 73 that her life will never change, her responsibilities remain the same as Solomon learns more lessons and the world of Pachinko becomes part of his life too. Kim Changho left because Kyunghee would not have him. Sacrifices, prejudice, loyalties, class distinctions, hiding your own heritage and denying your birthright are just some of the issues including abuse that author Min Jin Lee brings to light in this powerful novel of two countries Korea and Japan and the differences and similarities shared by many yet denied.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine