Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life- but no matter what, always expect suffering and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman- just ourselves.”

Sunja is a hardworking, innocent young woman who gives herself to a man that has come to her with deception. Love isn’t enough, and being a kept woman of a married family man would bring immense shame on her mother and the boarding house she runs, as well as smear the memory of her beloved father. Pregnant with few options,rescue comes in the form of a christian minister whom her mother has nursed back from the brink of death. In turn, he hopes to be Sunja and her unborn child’s salvation. Sunja finds herself leaving with her husband for Japan, where she will encounter a great cultural shock not just in the differences between the Japanese and Koreans, but in the treatment of her people. Never one to expect another to care for her, she becomes close to her sister-in-law and tries to earn money for the family.

This novel is a family novel, but it is also about the effects of war, the discrimination the displaced feel, the shame in hiding your origins as we see when Sunja’s son eldest son Noa struggles to hide his own ethnicity. There is a poignant sentence ” If you love anyone, you cannot help but share his suffering.” and we see Sunja suffer over Noa when he learns the truth of his biological father. I feel the place Hansu has throughout this epic story was wonderfully done, every emotions the characters struggle with are honest and raw. Yoseb is Sunja’s brother-in-law and even in desperate need of the money and connections Hansu has he still wants to honor his brother’s memory. I think too about the shock Noa feels and the decisions he makes to shake off his old laugh as if walking out of his very skin, at turns seeming to spite not just his real father and mother, but himself.

Sanja begins as an innocent, naive girl and becomes a strong, wise woman but she does suffer. No matter how hard she tries to do right, be honorable she can’t seem to escape the infectious rot of the early mistake she made in trusting and loving Hansu. It costs her everything in a sense, but it is also the first step in a journey that becomes her life. This is a rich story that exposes life as it is, where sometimes the bad get ahead, sometimes the good can sink and save you- there aren’t any clear right and wrongs when the goal is survival. We all do what we have to do to keep from drowning. You can be the best mother and it’s still not enough. Sanja’s life is full of fight and loss. Wonderful.

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