A Book That is Set in a Period of History in Which You are Interested

2018

Mary Jo

Pachinko book has been on many “best” lists from 2017, and it finally popped into my library’s ebook availability. After finishing the book, it’s easy to see why this family saga about the Korean diaspora, and the conflict between the people and culture of Japan and Korea, has garnered such laudatory recognition.

The book starts during the years of WWII, a very popular time period for books right now, and is set in Korean and Japan (and later, a brief setting in New York). We follow four generations of a Korean family who have fled, for various reasons, their homeland and are trying to create a new life for themselves in Japan. There is a bit of rags-to-riches toward the end (definitely more rags for most of the story), and a lot of conflict between cultural honor and survival.

I found the characters compelling – I really cared about what happened to them – and was willing to overlook a few story arcs that ended a bit too neatly (e.g., And then he died.) I cringed at man’s inhumanity frequently, raged at what I perceived to be antiquated cultural concepts that got in the way of progress and was saddened by the loss of familiarity. Several generations lost not only family, but their country.

The story runs from the WWII era, through the Korean War and the division of Korea, and tiptoes up to the Vietnam War. Along the way, the characters (and readers, too) confront issues of birth and death, grief and joy, loyalty, organized crime, sexuality, AIDS, religion, abject poverty, organized crime, and great riches. The labyrinth in the story is as addictive as those on a pachinko machine.

The ending was abrupt and left me unsatisfied. I don’t know if there’s a sequel opportunity there, but I feel like the story is not yet finished.

The book comes with a set of questions for book group discussions. Lots of thought-provoking topics. I’ll be recommending it to my book group.