I feel like a lot has happened already this year, especially considering two weeks were written off by having a bad cold (it’s still lingering but on the way out now). I had a birthday, we’ve spent time with friends, had a weekend away. Which handily included long train rides for reading.
Because one of my birthday presents was a box set of Penguin Mini Classics, I’ve decided that this year in-between each full-sized book I will read either a comic or a mini book. In addition to giving me a sample of lots of authors I’ve been meaning to read, it also makes my numbers on Goodreads look really good!
Like last year, February looks set to be much colder than January so I foresee some cosy reading days ahead.
This book has a style that initially put me off and ended with me completely in love with it and the story. It was a random purchase in response to a social-media appeal from Salt Publishing. I love a good random find.
The language echoes that of folk tale, with most characters named for their role in the story rather than having a given name. It seems a little stilted at first, but as I got used to it I was able to admire the ways in which Hamill uses style to great effect. Words and phrases are repeated, drawing powerful parallels between characters and events.
“The confidence didn’t come at first. At first they were like spiders, scurrying from house to house…But when they could walk from house to charred house, only looking over their shoulders once to see if they were being followed, they began to feel better. When the schools started back and the hospital opened and UN tanks were seen only once in a while, then they trusted that they might be okay. The war is over, thank God…We are free. We will live. We will marry. We will move on.”
This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.
Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.
Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.
This is an extraordinary book. It touches on some of the most horrific human actions of the early 20th century. And yet it manages to be a gentle, hopeful story.
It centres around Teoh Yun Ling, a Malay-Chinese woman who during her life has been a judge, prosecutor, landscape gardener and a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The book opens with her retirement, following which she travels from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing region of Malaysia where she has friends and property. Here, Yun Ling starts to write her memoirs.
The narrative switches to her first arrival in the Cameron Highlands, when she is a young prosecutor who has quit her job on the War Crimes Commission and needs respite at the home of a family friend, Magnus. She is still angry about the war and in particular the Japanese war crimes committed. She bears physical scars as well as psychological ones. She suffers in particular because her sister did not survive the camp where they were both held.