Updated: Jan 27, 2019
"In life, there was so much insult and injury, and she had no choice but to collect what was hers. But now she wished to take Solomon's shame, too, and add it to her like, though she was already overwhelmed."
-Etsuko, from the novel Pachinko, a National Book Award Finalist by author Min Jin Lee.
It's easy to understand why Min Jin Lee was nominated for a National Book Award and I'm shocked she didn't win, though I haven't read the others. This story is a journey from one end of life to another, an epic, and it flows so easily I could have at any time closed my eyes and described to you what was happening, who was in the room, and what I smelled. It is the first novel written for an English-speaking audience about Japanese-Korean culture.
The story begins in a small fishing village in 1910 and follows a Korean family all the way through 1989. My attempt to describe the events within this historical novel in order to entice you to read would be futile. What I can say is the story encompasses the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II. Through the lives of the various family members, we feel the discrimination of Koreans not only in Japan, but in their own country.
At the end of this book are questions for study or reading groups. They ask a lot about themes that include power, risk, discrimination, but only a few mention the lengths a mother will go to in order to protect or provide for her children. For me, that is the main theme. The sacrifices these women make throughout their lives provided me with a perspective I have never seen or felt before.
There are so many quotes that I highlighted while reading, and though I can't share them all, here is one that really struck me:
"Etsuko had to go back to the restaurant, but she settled on the sofa for a few minutes. When she had been a young mother there used to be only one time in her waking hours when she'd felt a kind of peace, and that was always after her children went to bed for the night. She longed to see her sons as they were back then; their legs chubby and white, their mushroom haircuts misshapen because they could never sit still at the barber. She wished she could take back the times she had scolded her children just because she was tired. There were so many errors. If life allowed revisions, she would let them stay in their bath a little longer, read them one more story before bed, and fix them another plate of shrimp."
While the historical accuracy, suffering, and discrimination is not lost on me and had a profound impact, it has been the Moms in this novel that kept me hooked. That made me think about the story when I couldn't read. That made me long to know what was going to happen next. It's a book that will stay with me a very long time.