Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Is this strange book? Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency.

5/5 stars.
ebook, 160 pages.
Read from May 20 to 24, 2016. Reread April 26, 2021 to May 24, 2021.

Is this strange book?  Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency. This book came up in my newsfeed as the latest Booker prize winner and after reading the description, I knew I had to read it.  The book was originally written in Korean and translated to English.

Set in modern-day South Korea, Yeong-hye is an obedient and unremarkable wife. The perfect kind, in the opinion of her husband, who is narrating the first portion of this story. That is until Yeong-hye is shaken by a dream that convinces her that she must become a vegetarian. While to many westerners, this is an unremarkable lifestyle choice, but in Korea it is not very well understood nor is it a popular in a country where following societal norms is very important. By becoming a vegetarian, Yeong-hye is being quite rebellious and disagreeable. Her husband and family believe this to be a phase but Yeong-hye just becomes more adamant about her choices and more passive aggressive in her actions resulting in some violent and cruel outcomes.

After a horrible intervention with her family Yeong-hye attempts suicide and is hospitalized which results in her selfish husband filing for divorce.  Yeong-hye’s has also, unknowingly, become the object of muse, fascination and sexual desire to her brother-in-law, who is an artist that does little to support his very busy entrepreneurial wife and their young child. His pursuit to create his sexual and prolific masterpiece will have dire consequences for Yeong-hye and for her sister.

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.”

I believe this book to be a reflection of women and their place in society in Korea as well as stigmas in regards to mental health. This book is a reflection of the consequences of being passive and obedient and the result of holding in these negative feelings and emotions and what that can do to someone’s well-being.

The first two portions of the book are narrated by men, the last is by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the first two portions of the book you get an idea of the expectations of women through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband who just wants her to be complacent and obedient. He has no shame in taking advantage of Yeong-hye when he believes that she is being disobedient. He is also envious of his brother-in-law who literally just gets to play around with his art all day and not work, while his wife works long hours and then is expected to cook and be the main care provider for her son.

“She’s a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.”

The second portion that is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. He has a envisioned a piece of art that centers around Yeong-hye but it verges on pornography. Yeong-hye is fascinating to him and he desires her. He is selfish and does little to pause and think of the consequences his actions might have outside of creating this perfect piece of art. He does little to think that he may be taking advantage of Yeong-hye since she is unwell or what the consequences would be for Yeong-hye and his wife.

“Perhaps the only things he truly loved were his images—those he’d filmed, or then again, perhaps only those he had yet to film.”

Finally, in the last portion of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister speaks. She is the only one who has attempted to help Yeong-hye and she is exhausted. She has been responsible for running a business, raising a son practically on her own, and is now trying to take care of Yeong-hye.  Yeong-hye’s sister is almost jealous of the fact that Yeong-hye is not bothered by her actions and not fitting in with a societal norms, despite her deteriorating mind and body, as it is a freedom that she has never known. The chapter is full of reflection from Yeong-hye’s sister and it evokes so much sadness and sympathy for both of the women’s circumstances.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The lack of Yeong-hye’s voice in her own story is a reflection on women struggling to have a voice in their own lives within a restrictive society of social norms. Through the choice to become a vegetarian, Yeong-hye starts to shed everything that society expects of her, however, with no way to express and deal with the emotions and turmoil inside of her, she becomes mad, or free, in Yeong-hye’s own perception.

Disturbing, beautiful and poignant. This book is worthy of the award it received. The writing is elegant, delicate and poetic even as it deals with such moving material. Had I the option to read this book in one sitting I would have. I was moved by the characters and turmoil of Yeong-hye’s spiral to madness/freedom. Her story will be one that will stick with me forever.

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