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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Historical fiction


by Min Jin Lee

Quick take

A novel with its own legend, a big novel to lose yourself in or to find yourself anew'”a saga of Koreans living in Japan, rejected by the country they call home.

Why I love it

Alexander Chee

Reading Pachinko was, in many ways, personal to me, at first. My own family is from one of these small fishing islands off the coast of Korea, and this novel’s beginning was like getting to spy on my grandparents’ early lives. It introduced me to their struggles in ways they would never have'”and yet, let me be clear, this novel does much more than to break an intergenerational silence. It also makes their era’s history accessible to American readers in new and marvelous ways.

The writing is remarkable'”the tone never wavers, the prose is flinty and clear. The first line: 'œHistory has failed us, but no matter.' What follows is this masterpiece Lee has written, a captivating family drama that is also a sweeping epic spanning the unknown (to most of us) history of the two countries for most of the twentieth century. It’s also the story of a woman fighting fiercely for her life and her children, in the midst of poverty, war, and unbearable odds.

Most of us do not know the story of Koreans in Japan; people who came to Japan with high hopes, but who find they are treated as second class citizens '“unable by law to own property, subject to discrimination and mockery, a stateless minority. Pachinko sets its story there, beginning in the early 1900s with one Sunja Baek, who becomes pregnant after a short affair with a married man, the son of a rich family. Seeking a better life abroad in Japan she leaves Korea in the company of a sympathetic pastor, as his wife. Japan is a land of opportunity in the minds of Sunja and her Korean countrymen, and they don’t anticipate the hardships that await them in their new home.

The result is a big novel to lose yourself in or to find yourself anew'”a saga of Koreans living in Japan, rejected by the country they call home, unable to return to Korea as wars and strife tear the region apart. The result is like a secret history of both countries burst open in one novel. I hope you love it like I did.

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"There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones."

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant—and that her lover is married—she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son's powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan's finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee's complex and passionate characters—strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis—survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

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Member thoughts

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All (7805)
Love (5744)
Like (1830)
Dislike (231)
7976 ratings
  • 72% Love
  • 23% Like
  • 3% Dislike
  • Summerville, SC

    A book about the “mundane” life of several generations of a family may seem boring but it's a page turner from the first chapter. I stopped so many times to just cry over these characters. I love it!

  • Columbia City, IN

    Wow. A beautifully told, insightful look into one family’s journey through cultural discrimination, tragedy, & heartbreak. This book explores identity, survival, the familial bond, & so much more. ❤️

  • Boston, MA

    I loved being set in this extremely difficult time in history and really feeling the struggles of the displaced Korean immigrants in Japan, Sunja’s life was a beautiful anchor to follow and connect to

  • Hinesburg, VT

    There’s really nothing to say. This book is amazing & should be required reading in high school. I know I’m biased being Korean, but I grew up with similar stories. This story captures it all. ????

  • Boulder, CO

    Everyone should read this book! Although based in Japan, the racial sentiments exist worldwide. It’s sad, but shows how hope is the key to survival, even in a cruel world that doesn't seem to change.

  • Camp Lejeune, NC

    What can I say about this book except that I loved it. Besides the fact that it’s excruciatingly long I would read it over! It opened my eyes to the Korean culture and the struggles they face, daily.

  • Deltona, FL

    Until this book I had no idea Koreans suffered such hardship from OTHER countries other than North Korea. I have always loved Japan.. but it puts a damper in my heart knowing how Japan treated Koreans

  • Apalachicola , FL

    This was an interesting read. I never knew the prejudice against Koreans. I found myself thinking about the book at work, wondering what was going to happen, looking forward to get back to reading!

  • Maple Grove, MN

    Superb book with deep insights into a culture I knew little about. The characters were so varied and I fell in love with all of them, both for their flaws and perfections. Story telling at its finest.

  • New Haven, CT

    I really love the characters and settings of this novel. Its very character driven but Min Jin Lee is phenomenal at making it still interesting. I thought about it constantly and couldnt put it down!

  • Brooklyn, NY

    From the first line, Lee had me hooked. Thoroughly engrossing, I couldn't put it down. My emotional investment in this book kept me returning to it again & again, even when I should have been working!


    Shamefully, I had this book for 11 months before I finally got around to reading it. This is a gorgeous, layered family saga with vivid characters & scenarios that will make you feel all the feelings.

  • Columbus, OH

    Just a beautiful, engaging story that gave insights to a culture that has been mistreated and misunderstood over time. I could have kept reading about these characters and offspring for 300 more pgs.

  • Ironwood, MI

    A saga that reminded me of Michener's work, without being written by a white guy with too many details. I was glued to this book; the dynamics of the history, culture, and characters was mesmirizing.

  • Palos Heights, IL

    Strong narrative and clear depiction of the correlation between Koreans and Pachinko in the Japanese culture. The Japanese culture is non inclusive and superior. Koreans (Pachinko) remain unacceptable

  • North Little Rock , AR

    I loved the culture, history, truth in this novel.It was slow&I felt she left out some details when talking about emotions& events but I'm sure that was necessary to fit the entire story.Great Read!!!

  • Towson, MD

    I've read several mediocre books recently, and this one was a huge reprieve. I'm grateful for this beautifully written epic story of human experience. To boot, I learned a lot about Koreans in Japan.

  • Bagdad , KY

    As a nerd for this time period and Asian lit. I knew that I had to snap this title up. It had a slow start but I loved the narration and atmosphere of this rarely told history of the Koreans in Japan

  • Peachtree City, GA

    So far my favorite book of 2017! It beautifully told the story of several generations without moving too fast. And it allowed me to learn more about what the Korean people suffered under Japanese rule

  • Golden, CO

    It was a long book, but didn't feel like it. I love the writing style and the characters. I believe that MJL fleshed out the setting, history, and characters really well while leaving room to breathe.

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