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Min Jin Lee’s gamble doesn’t pay off in “Pachinko”

In recent years, Asian American writers and novels have gained rapid popularity in the U.S.: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016; Celeste Ng has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for both of her novels; Ken Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians and Jenny Han’s “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have both been made into incredibly popular movies. Min Jin Lee, therefore, is in perfect company with her second novel, “Pachinko,” published in 2017.

Pachinko tells the multi-generational epic of a Korean family, headed by strong but troubled matriarch, Sunja. In the 1930s, Sunja’s teenage affair with a mysterious and wealthy businessman in Japan leaves her shamed and pregnant with a bastard child. A kindly minister agrees to marry her and take on the child as his own. Together, they move to Japan, hoping for a richer life, but are instead met with intense discrimination and tragedy. 

Lee continues to follow the struggles of Sunja’s family as they attempt to piece together their lives as Christian Koreans in war-torn Japan. The family is repeatedly saved by the meddling of Sunja’s former lover, Hansu Koh, who secretly attempts to guarantee a successful life for his abandoned son. Eventually, the novel finds Sunja’s two sons working in pachinko parlors, becoming variously successful on the gambling addictions of others. Despite their successes, each son and their descendants continue to struggle with their troubled past and confused identities.

While “Pachinko” offers readers an intense and compelling family dynamic, something about the novel seemed lackluster. Lee’s prose is quite elegant, and she effectively pulls her readers into the minds of even the most minor characters. The novel starts off excitingly enough with Sunja’s tale but lost steam as Lee began telling the stories of those two or three generations down the line.

Additionally, the recycled storylines of Hansu Koh appearing out of thin air and the untimely death of multiple beloved family members quickly grew tiring over time. As characters began to experience these dilemmas for the fourth or fifth time, they grew more and more distasteful and disconnected to readers. Readers grow tired of anticipating these scenes repeatedly, often told with a painstakingly slow pace across several pages, while other more exciting scenes are given no more than a few brief paragraphs.

Lee seems to write under the assumption that her readers know little of the Korean-Japanese history, and her novel serves as a way to make that history more accessible to American readers. Unfortunately, for any readers even slightly familiar with this background, the novel seems to simply tell this information in an uninteresting way, lacking any sort of proper narrative beyond following the segmented strands of a family.

Lee works far too hard to bring in new predicaments to side characters. For example, the harelip and club foot plaguing Sunja’s father without ever being mentioned again, the quandary of a gay friend of the family and his relationship with his wife, and the troubled teenage step-daughter who falls into prostitution all complicate the story without adding much value. These almost interesting vignettes are overshadowed by the family’s other cyclical crises and lack depth as Lee seems to emphasize quantity of these storylines over quality.

Where other family sagas have succeeded, “Pachinko disappoints, relying far too heavily on a sweeping history of Japan and Korea than truly delving into a distinctive and unique family experience. Min Jin Lee offers an almost interesting account of the plight of Korean-Japanese immigrants but fails to reach the depth of other novelists. Readers interested in but unfamiliar with Korean-Japanese history may find this book of use to them, but others will likely be let down by a lack of any engaging narrative structure.