Pachinko is a rip-roaring read. There’s no other word for it – I consumed this novel ravenously, compelled ever onward by its fascinating, tri-layered dynastic storytelling of a family history over three generations, taking in the whole scope of the 20th century from beginning to end. Each segment is wonderfully distinct – and yet, comes with frustrations too.
The beginning, funnily enough, is in my eyes the weakest of the parts – it feels suffused with the early 1900s age of itself, like a tale not just old in the telling, but inherently ‘old’ in its literary stylings too. It is only when the action moves from Korea to Japan that we begin to comprehend the full scope of exactly just what Pachinko is trying to do as a novel. For as much as this is a novel about Korea (or more specifically, Koreans), it is also a novel about Japan – still sitting pretty at this moment as the ‘most read’ current read themed around Japan on Goodreads.
This is understandable – there’s an almost chic-lit style page-turning verve to the bulk of Pachinko’s middle segments. A will-they-won’t-they survive type subsistence mentality that reminds one of Victoria Hislop’s The Island at times – and just as Pachinko presents itself as a similar story of minorities and outcasts, we find ourselves gripping to these poor souls as they try to find scant happiness in an unforgiving land. There’s a soap-opera like wonder in the minutiae of every day life, but also the grand overarching arc of rags to riches.
If I were to pick faults in the novel – they’d come chiefly in the lack of local flavour – it feels inauthentic at times, the characters are wonderfully detailed, but the locales feel like they could be anywhere. Inexpertly painted, there’s little at times to tell the Korean and Japanese settings apart – they are merely places where things happen. Mostly, the strength of the characters papers over this – but still, it could have presented a fuller picture if the backdrop had matched.
And lastly – it is the final third of the book, which I consumed in an increasingly angry, frustrated single sitting. For here, Pachinko transforms almost completely – literally, into an almost entirely different novel. Jumping ahead to the hedonism to the Japanese bubble 80s, the squalor of the earlier segments is cast off, and suddenly everything is about money and glamour. It’s as if you’ve been reading War & Peace for most of the week, and then on the last day, are suddenly watching Gossip Girl. The characters become increasingly shallow and vacuous – disappearing into their own egos. Internationalised American characters are introduced – presenting a more modern outlook, but their presence feels jarringly like an author-insert voicepiece, as opposed to the genuine, fully-formed voices that made the rest of the book a pleasure to read.
Pachinko, then, is an intensely frustrating read – but all the same, an incredibly compelling one – one that is easy to recommend for its easy readability. Boy does it have ‘hook’ – as they’d say. Briskly told, it may be abrasive at times, but this is widescreen, box-set style storytelling, and on that front, I love it.