Reading historical fiction feels a little bit like getting away with something. I'm drawn in by the same elements that entice me in any novel: complex characters and relationships, a compelling story, and great writing. When I finish a historical novel, though, I've also learned something about the real world. To complete the Read a Book About History category of this year's 10 to Tryopens a new window reading challenge, I choose Pachinko.opens a new window This sweeping novel explores Korean and Japanese history through one family's story.
Author Min Jin Lee's writing is spare and elegant. In just a few lines, she creates vivid settings. I felt as if I were standing on a rocky beach in a small Korean village or next to a food cart selling homemade candy near a crowded Japanese train station. Lee's ability to transport me is especially notable because before I read the book, I knew next to nothing about the entwined histories of Korea and Japan. I didn't realize that Japan had colonized Korea for many years, or that Koreans living in Japan experienced incredible discrimination. I've never been to either of the countries and honestly, most of my previous knowledge about them was food-related. Happily, food plays a big role in this novel, so I did have a few familiar touch points.
Lee is as adept at capturing character as she is at creating settings. Pachinko follows a family over the course nearly a century. It begins with Sunja, a pregnant and unwed Korean teenager. She is rescued from disgrace by a young minister on his way to lead a church in Japan. Their children and their children's children fill the novel, which traces the way that racism against Koreans affects the family. Lee juggles lots of characters but renders them unique and knowable with well-chosen details. As a reader, I never felt lost or confused.
If you loved Pachinko as much as I did, or if you're curious about the book and would like to learn more, I have exciting news: Min Jin Lee is coming to King County! Come hear her speak at the Carco Theatre in Renton on Friday, May 3 at 7:30 pm. The event is free, but reservations are required. I hope you'll pick up this remarkable book and then come meet the author!