It’s been a long year – one that in global terms can be generously called ‘iffy’. Just environmentally speaking, we’ve got devastating wildfires across the US, threats of widespread climate change-induced famine, and rapidly increasing plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. (but the UK is going to be increasing the disposable plastic bag charge from 5p to 10p, so who knows, it’ll probably all come out in the wash)
What better way to distract ourselves, then, than to sit down and read a book about historical Spanish painter Diego Velázquez? Or a made up game played between an interstellar empire and a post-scarcity anarcho-communist utopia? Or a collection of poems about getting old and being a bit sad about it? Sounds good? Well, then do I have just the list for you…
(As always, most of these books weren’t published in 2018. And this is
just a list of the books I enjoyed the most a clearly objective list of factually correct opinions. The books are presented in no particular order, except when they’re not.)
The Multi-generational Sprawling Masterpiece Award
Min Jin Lee – Pachinko
Pachinko is the story of Yangjin and Hoonie – a loving couple living in Korea under Japanese rule in the early 1900s. Oh no wait, actually it’s about their daughter Sunja, who meets a wealthy man, falls in love, gets pregnant, and then finds out he’s already married. Who then marries an understanding, charitable Christian minister, and moves with him to start a new life in Osaka, Japan. Oh, actually it’s about her sons Noa and Mozasu, who struggle with their sense of iden – oh wait, now it’s about Mozasu’s son Solomon, who…
Pachinko is the story of several generations of a Korean (and later Japanese-Korean family) as they face economic hardships, anti-Korean discrimination, and questions of identity in a country that does not care about them; that sees them as aliens – even those who were born there, and who feel no connection to Korea – their supposed ‘home’ country.
Min Jin Lee does an astonishingly good job of characterizing each of Pachinko’s central characters, and in allowing the reader to see the multi-faceted, unique ways in which said characters struggle with their identity, their history, and their place in Japanese society. I fell in love with every member of the family, and felt a strange, jolting sense of loss when their story was suddenly over, and the mantle was passed to the next generation.
The thing that stuck with me the most, however, was how well Pachinko portrays the loss of context faced by the younger generation of a family. How they can look at their parents, grandparents and think ‘god, they’re so old-fashioned’ – sigh and roll their eyes at their backward thinking, lack of courage, fatalism. And all the time you’re just sitting there, screaming internally: “No, you don’t get it. You weren’t there.” We followed the story of Sunja from a childhood in occupied Korea to her old age decades and decades later. We saw the hardships of moving to a new country that has no time for her, of losing her husband, of war and famine, of…
And now, to her children she is a stubborn old woman. To her grandchild, she is even more distant than that. But we were there. We saw it. And now it’s gone – her generation is done, and how could her grandson ever really understand her story?
As we get older we come to understand our parents more and more – never perfectly, but we can form a picture that was previous denied to us. For many of us, though, our grandparents remain enigmas – even if we do spend time with them, even if we learn about the facts of their lives, we miss the context, and we rarely get a sense of what formed them into the people they are (or, more and more rapidly – the people they were). Pachinko does a wonderful, heartbreaking job of seeing the world slip by you, and knowing that your story will never be fully understood by those who weren’t there to see it happen.