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  • Emily McTavish

Spring Read: Pachinko


For spring, and it’s finally spring here in Chicago, I’ve got a more serious and heavy book recommendation. This book, in it’s hardcover form, was genuinely heavy to read on the train while squished in with everybody still wearing winter coats. I recently finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and found it difficult to put down. Modern Mrs. Darcy released a list of literary novels that are page turners, and I would include Pachinko on my own list of books that are difficult to put down. The novel was a National Book Award Finalist for 2017, has been a bestseller, is now in paperback and is not related to spring at all. However, if you’re paying attention to international news from Korea, it does give great background information.


Pachinko gives a thorough look at Korean history, North and South, for all of us that didn’t understand the Korean war in high school. Or even after high school. The actual game of Pachinko is something I had never heard of, but it first reminded me of a combination between the claw-machine games at places like Perkins and the board game Plinko. In Korea and Japan, Pachinko is a gambling game like vertical pinball. Through the book, you learn about the relationship between the Koreans in Japan that came on their own accord before World War II and then after as refugees. You also learn about each character’s relationship with Pachinko, both good and bad.


Sunja comes to Japan from Korea during the Great Depression with her new husband, a minister. The family struggles to make ends meet in a new country where Koreans are citizens or even refugees.  Sunja’s first son wants to pass as a Japanese, and her second son winds up in the Pachinko business, where Koreans serve Japanese. Pachinko is a messy business though, full of gangsters and unfortunate deals. You see how identities of Sunja’s family are re-shaped around the Pachinko business.


I’m likely not doing a good synopsis this time, but I can’t help but urge everyone to read it. It’s a family saga, heavy on the drama and does not have any excess sap. It was an eye-opening novel for me because I really have had little background about Korea. I’ve learned that being Korean in Japan was messy for many generations. Now with the Korean leaders meeting and discussing new policies to end the war, this book is more important and timely.

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