Published: February 7, 2017
Format: Combination of hardcover book and audiobook
Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2017), Reading Women Award for Fiction (2017), Litsy Award for Historical Fiction (2017)
This epic novel was conceived by Min Jin Lee in 1989 when she was a student at Yale and listened to a talk by a Protestant missionary who had worked among the Zainichi (Koreans who moved to Japan during colonial rule and their descendants). The seed was planted and after going to law school and practicing successfully for 2 years, she quit to write this novel, which she abandoned and then returned to with renewed enthusiasm when the opportunity to live in Japan presented itself in 2007. She was able to interview both Koreans and Japanese living in Japan to gain greater insights and perspectives which greatly broadened the scope of her novel.
This novel spans eight decades, four generations and two wars. The novel begins during colonial times in Korea. Korea is under imperial rule, having recently been annexed by Japan. Hooni, born with a cleft lip and club foot is the only surviving son a fisherman and his wife who own a lodging house in Yeongdo, and island village a ferry ride from Busan. Not thought marriageable due to his deformities, his mother is quite pleased when they are presented with the possibility of an arranged marriage to Yangjin, the youngest daughter of a poor farmer. When Hooni dies of tuberculosis, Yangjin and their beloved daughter, Sunja take over the lodging house, and despite the hard work, they seem to be doing well for themselves and the lodgers considering the times.
At the age of 16, Sunja becomes wrapped up in an affair and impregnated by a wealthy Korean fish dealer, Koh Hansu. When told of her pregnancy, Hansu reveals that he is married to a Japanese wife in Osaka and has 3 daughters. A young boarder, Baek Isak, is told of Sunja’s predicament by Yangjin, who unburdens herself to this minister who has stayed with them for some months. Feeling grateful for the care given in being nursed back to health when suffering a bout of tuberculosis, Isak decides to wed Sunja. In this way, he can save Sunja from shame and give the baby a name and a chance in life. Sunja and Isak move to Osaka together and into a small apartment with Isak’s brother Yoseb and Yoseb’s wife, Kyunghee.
In Osaka, Sunja gives birth to two sons, Noa and Mazasu. Their lives take many twists and turns and at times seem very uncertain. Feeling the need to help support the family, Sunja and Kyunghee begin to sell kimchee and candy. This hurts Yoseb deeply, as he feels he needs to be the one to provide for the family. Isak is imprisoned on trumped up charges and only is released when it seems he is very near to dying. Sunja and Kyunghee’s kimchee and candy making businesses are doing very well. It is only on the brink of the end of WW2 when Koh Hansu reveals that it was his restaurant supporting their success all along. He reveals himself in order to evacuate them to safety, apparently (maybe too conveniently) having some insider knowledge and insight in the future bombings.
This novel follows these generations of the family and their uncertain lives in Korea. They are never made to feel at home in Japan and are treated as foreigners even several generations later. They must register every three years and could be deported at any time. The Koreans face discrimination at every turn. The children are relentlessly bullied at school. Adult Koreans are barred from most jobs, and the only lucrative job available to Zainichi is in the Pachinko parlors, which are seen as shady and deviant. Both Noa and Mazasu end up working in Pachinko parlors. Mazasu’s son wants to as well once he realizes the truth about how he was used by the high end real estate firm where he worked after coming back from America. Pachinko symbolizes what the family can attain, but it also symbolizes the chaos of their lives. This game has a steel ball zipping along like in a pinball game and depending on little maneuvers of the pegs, their lives could go in many different directions.
This novel explores so many themes along the way. There is the effect of poverty on a family and community, the accumulation of wealth through generations and its effect on the individuals, suicide, Japanese culture and its’ predjudices, and the roles of men and women and how they change across these generations. The universal narrator not only follows the members of this family, but it follows other individuals whose lives intersect with this family to illustrate other points. Hansu, is a Korean collaborating with the Japanese has an affair with Sunja, but hadn’t admitted he was married. Haruki, is gay, but closeted. His wife spies him having sex with a man. Phoebe is Korean American and has no tolerance for the way Koreans are treated by the Japanese. Hana, whose mother was the town slut, ends up working in a hostess cafe and acquires AIDS.
There was so much to love about this novel. I loved learning about this part of history. I felt like I was able to get to know the Japanese culture better through this novel and particular the experience of the Zainichi. I loved the Japanese and Koreans words that were infused into this book that have no direct interpretation into English. The storytelling is marvelous. As there were so many characters’ stories represented within this novel, at times, I wished to hear more about certain ones, but mostly I was quite satisfied.
- In the forward, Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, describes Hansu as a romantic hero comparing him to the likes of Mr. Darcy and others. Do you agree with this description? Why or why not?
- Isak proposes to marry Sunja. What are his motivations behind this?
- In both Korea and Japan, certain qualities such as disability, being foreign, going against social norms (pregnant out of wedlock), being LGBTQ make people outcasts. How does this manifest in the book? Do you feel that this is similar in other parts of the world? Does Japan take this to a more extreme degree than other countries? Why or why not?
- We never learn if Haruki’s wife confronts him about what she witnessed in the park. What do you imagine happens?
- How do you interpret the meaning of the title? Do you think it is a good title for this book?
- Why do you think there is so little literature about the Korean experience in Japan?
- Discuss and compare the relationship Sunja experiences with Hansu and Isak. Why do you think Sunja keeps dreaming about Hansu towards the end of the novel? Why does she feel closer to Isak once he has deceased?
- It is said repeatedly in this book “a women’s life is endless work and suffering.” Why? Do you think the female characters suffer more than the male characters?
- Suicides figure prominently in this book. Why does Noa commit suicide? Why does Noa’s wife’s father commit suicide? Why are suicide rates so high in Japan?
- Hana works at a hostess bar. She seems to be practicing for this with Solomon. Why do you think she feels her life must go in that direction?
- Christianity is not practiced widely in Japan or Korea, yet plays an important role in this book. Discuss the role of Christianity in this book and how the family is affected by it.
- Yangjin is very reproachful of her daughter on her deathbed. Is this her true feelings that she has been hiding or something else?
- Noa takes the news of his true biological father hard. He renounces his mother and brother and passes as Japanese. Did this surprise you? Did it fit with his character to do this? Why or why not?
- The parent child relationships change across generations. How so? Why is Yangjin critical of Sunja’s adoration of her children?
- Discuss the following quote: “Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” Do you think that by “becoming Japanese” Noa rectified his situation?