The concept of this book by Min Jin Lee did not immediately grab my interest and I had more or less decided to skip this one, despite the fact that people in my book group kept raving about how much they loved it. It’s not a short book, so it was unlikely that I was ever realistically going to get around to it.
I requested the audiobook from my library, but got into trouble when it became available (and automatically checked out for me) when I had just started listening to Behold the Dreamers. You’d think I’d have learned by now not to have multiple audiobooks on hold, but I have not. As it was I was left with two weeks to listen to 18 hours of this audiobook. I did manage to finish it before the library took it back, but just barely.
It took me a while to decide whether I liked this book, but about 1/3 of the way through I decided I liked these characters and cared about them enough to find out what happened to them.
The book starts in the early 1900s in Korea with Hoonie, a poor man with a cleft palate and a limp who is making ends meet by farming and running a boarding house. When he dies, his daughter, Sunja, is just a child and helps her mother, Yangjin, run the boardinghouse. As a young woman, Sunja is seduced and impregnated by a man in the market she thinks will marry her, but when she tells him she’s expecting, he reveals that he already has a wife and three kids in Japan. He still wants to take care of Sunja, offering to buy her a house and remain an active part of her and their child’s lives.
Sunja is mortified and never wants to see him again, feeling he misled her, which he kind of did, but she has to admit she never asked. She just assumed he was unattached and would marry her, which was not a safe assumption for a young girl of that time period to make about a significantly older man (Hansu, the father of her child, is in his thirties at this time). So now Sunja has to live with the shame of getting pregnant out of wedlock and having a child with no name because apparently in Korea at the time they couldn’t just give the baby her surname.
But Sunja lucks out when a minister, Isak, comes through town and stays at her mother’s boarding house. He comes down with tuberculosis, so he has to stay a few months while they nurse him back to health, but he recovers, and when he does, Yangjin admits their troubles to Isak. He kind of likes Sunja and sympathizes with her plight, so he offers to marry her. It’s pretty much an offer she can’t refuse, so she agrees, they get married quickly, and she goes with him to Osaka, Japan where Isak is meeting up with his brother, Yoseb, and sister-in-law, Kyunghee.
Fortunately for Sunja, they all get along really well. Isak is a great man who tries really hard to be a true Christian, taking good care of her and raising their son as his own. Yoseb and Kyunghee are also firm believers in the Christian faith who accept Sunja unequivocally as their new sister-in-law and don’t ask any questions about the biological father of her child. She and Kunghee are calling each other “sister” in no time and it looks as though they’re going to live happily ever after.
But of course the story is only just beginning. They still have to get through WWII, the division of Korea into two countries, and a host of other problems.
Isak gets thrown in jail and released just in time to die at home, at which point Sunja has to think up a way to make some money for her and her two sons. She’s still living with Yoseb and Kyunghee, who won’t throw her out, although they’d be well within their rights to do so. But Yoseb doesn’t make much money, so Sunja and Kyunghee make a big batch of kimchi and Sunja takes it to the market to sell. Shortly after that she gets an offer to make kimchi exclusively for a restaurant owner. It’s a sweet gig, but he has to close up shop after a few years when the war rationing makes it impossible to keep the doors of his restaurant open.
Then Hansu shows up. He wants to get Sunja and her family out of the city because he somehow knows the U.S. will start bombing Japanese cities. Sunja tells Hansu they’ve managed just fine on their own so far, but Hanso reveals the restaurant owner who hired Sunja was really working for him and he arranged the whole thing in order to take care of Sunja and his only son, Noa.
Hansu continues to show up throughout Sunja’s life, whether she likes it or not. He likes keeping tabs on her and on their son, though Noa thinks Isak is his father and Hansu is just a wealthy family friend.
It turns out that, not only is Hansu just a plain bad guy who thinks of no one but himself, but he’s a gangster. Because Koreans are heavily discriminated against by the Japanese, how Koreans deal with it is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book by showing different characters handling their adversity differently. Hansu is a power-hungry gangster; Noa is obsessed with education and following the rules, convinced Koreans can raise themselves up out of their adversity through education and hard work; his younger brother, Mozasu, has a harder time with school and is constantly getting in fights with other students – he ends up getting a job with a guy who owns a pachinko parlor. Mozasu works hard for him, works his way up the ranks, and eventually ends up owning his own pachinko parlors.
Pachinko is a Japanese pinball game involving gambling. If the player wins the game, they win money, otherwise the money they put in the machine to play the game goes to the house. Of course the machines are all fixed so that the house almost always wins, and even though everyone knows this, there’s still a stigma against people who work in the pachinko business. It’s unclear whether the pachinko workers are suspect because they’re mostly Korean, or if they’re mostly Korean because the business is kind of sketchy and so most Japanese workers consider it to be beneath them.
Despite the fact that pachinko is a legitimate business, no one wants to admit that gamblers lose more than they win, so the Japanese tend to blame the Koreans for being crafty and tricking the Japanese out of their money. Mozasu makes sure his son, Solomon, gets the best education money can buy so he can earn a good living in a reputable business, like banking. But Solomon is discriminated against at his first banking job and gets fired through no fault of his own. The experience sours him to the world of banking, even though his boss promises to give him a good reference. Solomon determines to go into the pachinko business with his father, but Mozasu doesn’t want that for his son.
Throughout the book I was struck by the similarities between the trials of Koreans living in Japan and minorities in America. From ghettos with overpriced housing to limited job opportunities, the Koreans continue to struggle through generations. Even those who were born in Japan can’t get Japanese citizenship, and while some do go back to Korea, those who return to North Korea are never heard from again.
And yet the Koreans and Japanese aren’t all that different. Her whole life Sunja is told that a woman’s lot is to suffer. Towards the end of the book she and her mother are watching a Japanese show in which a reporter talks to Japanese immigrants around the world, and one of those Japanese immigrants tells the camera that a woman’s place is to suffer, but that she hopes to make her country proud by being a good Japanese immigrant.
The narrator of this audiobook wasn’t great, but she wasn’t bad either. She didn’t do different voices for different characters and some of her inflections were immature and overly dramatic, but she didn’t dissuade me from continuing to listen. I still wanted to know more about these characters and their lives, and it was nice not to have to struggle with the pronunciation of Korean and Japanese words.
What did you guys read/listen to this week? Any other library books you had to devour more quickly that you otherwise would have?