a bookclique pick by Jessica Flaxman
A young girl is seduced by an older man in fine clothing. A kind but sickly visitor to the girl’s mother’s boarding house marries the girl and raises her illegitimate son as his own. The spurned biological father haunts and protects the girl, now woman, and her family throughout their long lives. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, and the events precipitating and following Japan’s aggression and defeat during World War II, Pachinko joins a rich, global canon of epic novels.
Author of Free Food for Millionaires, Lee writes that the idea for Pachinko occurred to her nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, when she was a junior at Yale. “One afternoon, I attended what was then called a Master’s Tea, a guest lecture series. An American missionary based in Japan was giving a talk about the “Zainichi,” a term used to describe Korean Japanese people who were either migrants from the colonial era or their descendants… the missionary relayed a story of a middle school boy who was bullied in his yearbook because of his Korean background. The boy jumped off a building and died. I would not forget this.”
Indeed, Lee remembered the story of the boy, how it moved her, and began to write with passion and focus about Koreans in Japan. In 2002, The Missouri Review published her prize-winning story “Motherland” about a Korean Japanese boy who gets fingerprinted and receives a foreigner’s identity card on his birthday. From there, Lee continued her work and with Pachinko, achieved her goal of spreading awareness of and sympathy for Koreans who lost their country amid the twists and turns of the 20th century.
Pachinko therefore is not just epic in its own right, but the story of how it came to be is epic as well. Lee’s ability to bring events, places and past times such as the game, pachinko, not well known to Western readers is unparalleled. Ultimately, though, it is her skill with moving readers to feel hope, sadness and regret for fully imagined and very human characters that secures her seat at the table with the greats.