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Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I have always loved reading a family saga, whether it’s A Suitable Boy, set in India, or Thornbirds, in Australia, and so Pachinko was right up my alley. This one had the additional benefit of exploring a history of oppression that is not universally well known.

It centres on a Korean woman called Sunja, who faces disgrace when she falls pregnant to a married man. However, she is saved by a kind minister who proposes and takes her to Japan to live. There, she is exposed to the injustices and prejudices faced by Korean people in Japan.

It also tells the story of her sons, and how they face similar prejudices a generation later, but find ways to overcome some of the obstacles they face.

While I was reading this book, I listened to a podcast in which the author was interviewed about why she decided to write about this little-known history of Japan’s Korean community. As a person with Korean heritage, Min Jin Lee said she believed it was important for people to understand the challenges that Korean people faced, and sometimes continue to face. The title of the book refers to a game of luck that is played in Japan and Korea, but often looked down upon by the Japanese.

One element of the book that Min Jin Lee spike about was the portrayal of Sunja as a woman who was not as beautiful as many female protagonists tend to be. While this was refreshing, I still felt the women in the book were largely judged in terms of their value in the eyes of men. As Sunja was hardworking and modest, she was considered of value, with these traits perhaps considered of most importance of all among her community.

Apart from that very minor niggle, Pachinko is very much worth reading, both as an engaging story on generations of one family and the story of a group of people that is often forgotten in history classes.

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