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Mr Jeremy Tay recommends Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a Korean family drama spanning much of the 20th century, as the characters deal with family, racism and dire poverty in colonial-era Korea, and later as poor immigrants in Japan. The novel starts properly in the mid-1920s, after a girl child, Sunja, is born to a poor couple running a lodging house for labourers in Yeongdo - a fishing village off of Busan. Sunja has dreams of a larger life outside of Yeongdo and at 16 falls in love with a wealthy fishbroker, Koh Hansu, who promises to show her the world. She soon becomes pregnant and faces the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock or becoming a rich man’s mistress. A third option presents itself, as a passing protestant minister headed to Osaka agrees to marry and take her with him, in what was understood by their families as an act of “sacrifice” in order to legitimise the child.

The novel spans generations and we see the fortunes of the family rise and fall, and what it means to be living without a viable identity – with ethnic Koreans facing discrimination and abuse as unwanted guests in Japan. The title, pachinko, is about an activity both central to the story as well as a metaphor for the opportunities of Koreans in Japan. Pachinko is a kind of pinball machine, where players aim to win as many steel balls as possible, which can then be exchanged for money. As a form of sanctioned gambling, pachinko parlours are regarded as disreputable and believed to be linked with organised crime; but they are one of the few places at that time in which ethnic Koreans could work in and attempt to find success. There was an interesting part in the novel where the narrator describes how the pins are adjusted by the proprietors each night, such that players who believe they have mastered a machine will find that their successes are not replicable. In the end, the house always wins.

Min Jin Lee has a keen eye in describing the lives and relationships of the working class. The character development is somewhat patchy, however, as some characters in the vast ensemble are barely developed (e.g. the kind benefactor and family friend; colleagues; etc). Throughout the narrative, characters take gambles in their choices, to win love, wealth, or even just a chance to survive the bombardment of war. The price of survival, the novel tells us, is the second-guessing of every important chance that we ever took - a burden that grows ever heavier with a long life.

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