Recommendation: It’s a good enough story and you could certainly do worse
Read with: Tea, I suppose
Where to read: This is actually a decent summer read – it wouldn’t be my choice for beach reading but I’d certainly take it with me on a trip to see vaguely racist relatives
In brief: Pachinko is the story of an extended Korean family living in Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s or so. It’s thematically broad, diving into racism and poverty in particular, but both the prose and the pacing could be described (uncharitably) as plodding.
Pachinko is the book you use to illustrate what the old maxim “show, don’t tell” does not look like. It’s the most brutally workmanlike prose I can remember encountering (outside the odd piece of utterly miserable legal correspondence) and while that does make for an extraordinarily easy read from a technical perspective, there are points where the will to continue trudging through is hard to find.
This generally literal approach may be deliberate but it creates a real distance between reader and character – you empathise with them, but you don’t feel for them. The blatant exposition of motive and backstory turn the supporting cast in particular into functionaries rather than characters. There’s no reason whatsoever to interrogate someone’s behaviour when you’re told upon first introduction that she’s acting in the way she is because of the shame of her divorce and deep lack of personal fulfilment, or because she didn’t receive parental love and is trying to make up for it by sleeping around.
That’s not to say that Pachinko is entirely without beauty or wit; there are really lovely passages here and there. On the other hand, I cried three times in the first 15 or so pages of The Overstory…. and life is short.