109. ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee.

What a surprisingly great read this turned out to be! I literally devoured it cover to cover on a rainy afternoon – knowing little but the basics of the history of the area, much of it was also genuinely enlightening. I expect many of you have read Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (and it’s a great book), but this novel revealed in considerably greater depth life in Japan from 1932 through to 1989. It’s a multi generational family saga solidly based in history and geography – and the writing style is so refreshing. The Korean influence on the Japanese style is quite unlike anything I can recall reading before. And I love the cover art.

I believe that one of the accomplishments which will firmly lift a truly good novel from the myriad published is the capacity to transport the reader out of their own time and place and albeit briefly, immerse them in another real or imaginary world. This achieves exactly that very well although I must tell you that the first time I picked this book up I read no further than the intro chapter about Hoonie (who sounds adorable regardless of his physical challenges), and to be honest I wasn’t immediately grabbed. Second time round and yes, it does get much better.

From the back cover;

YEONGDO, KOREA 1911 A club footed, cleft lipped man marries a fifteen year old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then a Christian minister offers a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife. Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country where she has no friends and no home, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

A yakuza is a gangster as I understand it – Hoonie is the club footed man, and pachinko sound like poker machines. This association and influence will plague generations of the family in different ways, mostly uncompromisingly. But what shone through for me, even in the intro that failed to grab me, was the unmissable thumbs up for the strength and resilience of these women living in a seriously patriarchal society. Somehow, they survive and keep the family afloat through the desperate poverty and hunger of the Second World War, and the relationship between Sunja and her sister in law, Kyunghee, is a central thread running throughout.

I think I’m going to keep this one. Is there a better recommendation?

Thanks for reading – Becky X (and the silly Vince Dog)