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.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

“You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence.”

4/5 stars.
Hardcover, 448 pages.
Read from October 12, 2018 to November 6, 2018.

There aren’t many books that manage to be this cohesive and consistently relevant. White Teeth debuted back in the 2000s and not many authors are able to make the literary impact that Zadie Smith did with this novel. For a first time novel, not only is  White Teeth brilliantly written but it also portrays a modern England with multi-ethnicities that span over two generations.

White Teeth begins by following two WWII veterans and friends, Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal. These two men, likely never would have been friends had they not met in the war as they come from vastly different backgrounds and ethnicities, boundaries that are not often crossed during post-war England. Both men marry women a generation younger than them. Archibald marries Clara, a beautiful, young, intelligent black woman who just happened to come into his life at a vulnerable time in hers. They have one daughter together, Irie. Samad is married to Alsana, an Indian woman with a sharp tongue who hides under a perceived notion of tradition but is generally “all talk”,  they have two boys together, identical twins, Millat and Magid.

Samad is a traditional man who brought his family over to England from India. He hides the fact that he is a server at his family’s restaurant because he feels the position is below him and often goes out of his way to stoke his ego any chance he can, to hide his own insecurities and personal failures, even at the expense of others. Archibald is an indecisive man that floats through life and is just happy to meet with Samad once a week at their neighbourhood pub. The men’s children are growing up in an England that they don’t recognize, can’t relate to, and are unwilling to move forward with. Millat and Migid relate more to being English than they do to their Indian roots, much to Samad’s fury, while Irie feels lost behind her fro and big hips, despite her intelligence and being the only character with a solid head on her shoulders. This dysfunctional lot each makes their own mistakes as they each traverse through their own identities and generational differences. No one really knows who they should be but they’re all being bombarded with ideals that are ultimately irrelevant.

“…They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”

This book has a bit of slow start as it transitions from generation to generation. Once the children are born into each family the plot takes on a more interesting dynamic. Samad becomes a tragic yet despicable character, in my opinion. He is disrespectful of his wife and will do whatever it takes to prove himself right. He doesn’t care about his son’s wishes or wellbeing, just about what he believes their life should be like and for this, they both suffer.

“They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave–acutely displays “the immigrant fears–dissolution, disappearance.”

It’s hard to feel bad for Samad but Archibald too makes his own mistakes with Irie by not being a firm presence in her life. It doesn’t matter to Archibald what becomes of Irie, not because he doesn’t care, but more because he doesn’t put effort into any aspects of his life. As a reader, Irie is the only one you don’t want to pull your hair out over as she seems to be the only one that can see everyone’s issues, including her own. She is the only voice of sanity when everyone is at their breaking points.

I enjoyed most of the book, though I found some bits slow and obviously some of the characters highly unlikeable, however, the writing is moving and a brilliant commentary on race and gender in England. For a debut novel, White Teeth is very good so I can only imagine what else Zadie Smith has brought to the table since then.