Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Finished reading on August 14, 2018

Pachinko is a difficult and tragic book. Stories of struggle with class, race, and gender fill the stories of four generations of a family. The story is gripping and emotional, and there are several narrative techniques that add a great deal. I think that Lee’s use of omniscient perspective adds a great deal: minor characters’ thoughts meander in for one or two paragraphs, adding a tremendous amount of color and detail that would have otherwise been lost. The other is the way that she very tersely writes about tragedy. Here’s a small snippet from the book’s opening:

...When Yangjin was alone with her firstborn, she traced her index finger around the infant's mouth and kissed it; she had never loved anyone as much as her baby. At seven weeks, he died of a fever. Her second baby had a perfect face and good legs, but he, too, died before his baek-il celebration from diarrhea and fever. Her sisters, still unmarried, blamed her weak milk flow and advised her to see a shaman. Hoonie and his parents did not approve of the shaman, but she without telling them when she was pregnant for the third time. Yet, in the midst of her pregnancy, she felt odd, and Yangjin resigned hersielf to the possibility that this one, too, may die. She lost her third to smallpox.

The larger the tragedy, the more terse the prose. This continues throughout the entire book as the family’s fortunes rise and fall. The book is tremendous in its treatment of both a narrow historical moment and the broader human condition, and I highly recommend it.

★★★★★