So remember when kale was like a Big Deal and it was in your cereal and your smoothies and your muffins and you were like ‘stop talking about kale! I don’t like it!’ (Or if you’re my mum, you were like ‘Kale?! I don’t even eat lettuce!’)? That’s how I felt about Pachinko. I was like, stop recommending this book to me, world. I get that it’s ‘good’ and ‘great’ and ‘life changing’ but it just looks dull and maybe over-hyped and probably there’s no way it can be anything other than a little chewy.
This is where the analogy falls apart. Because kale really is over-hyped and (as M. would observe) doesn’t need to be in anything because it’s really not that good. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on the other hand, is worth every single page of its 400+ brilliance (when did page count start to matter? In a meeting recently debating how many pages young people are willing/able to read (and our book club has the same talk) and I wanted to have a stomp and yell, because a novel should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and if it’s too long it’s too long because it didn’t need to be that long. I probably felt differently reading Infinite Jest but I DIGRESS).
Right, so Pachinko has the feel of a book that you’re going to read because it’s ‘important’ and ‘recommended’ (aka: full of brain vitamins) but then… it’s just… great. Like as a story you want to read and not put down. While also – and incidentally! that part is important! – being good for your literary life because it’s so well crafted. And in my case good for my political/historical life because I didn’t know *anything* about the history of Koreans in Japan, which… is what the book is about.
Reluctant to tell you the broad strokes of the plot because you’re likely to be like…
Kale. Boring. And it’s not! Anyway, it’s about a few generations of this Korean family living in/being Japanese, but not being Japanese because of bananas rules about Koreans-in-Japan and citizenship. Opening just before WWII we follow threads of gender, class, citizenship and nationality, along with all sorts of ideas of identity/belonging/passing and family. All layered around romance. Oh and religion! It really does have it all (haven’t you heard? Kale also makes your farts smell good).
So yeah. Be a better person and read Pachinko. And I promise this won’t be like interval training or CBD or coconut water [insert other ridiculous fad]. This one be the real deal.
So if you loved The Time Travellers Wife, you’ll probably enjoy Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is probably the last thing Lim wants me to write, and I’m sorry for saying it. Because they’re very different books. This one is beautifully written, with complex characters and a compelling plot: our protagonists are separated in time when Polly jumps to the future in a gamble to save her lover, Frank, from dying of a pandemic flu. The post-apocalypse future of life after the flu is as disturbing as it is resonant.
But the overarching romance of their relationship, the way the mechanics of time and time travel play in to their relationship, the urgency of their reunion, and the gender politics of a woman waiting – forever waiting – to be reunited with her man – echo strongly with the best-known time travel novel.
That said, whether you’ve read Time Travellers or not, or have no opinions about time travel, I’d recommend this read. It’s not like The Best thing I’ve read, but it’s a solid bet and you could do worse for first books for 2019.
[SPOILER FOLLOWS] Continue reading
It took my book club people expressing total surprise that I liked Bridges of Madison County for me to reflect on why I liked it. I kept saying ‘but it’s good writing’ and they were like… no. They read a few passages out loud. They reminded me of the repeated references to peregrines and the representation of men as total wood-smoke masculinity. And I blushed. They were right. The writing is excessive. The representation of masculinity is problematic. The commitment to soul-mate-love is unbelievable.
I liked it. I liked the frame narrative and its efficacy in trapping me into believing the reality of the fiction. I liked the romance of the relationship with its intensity and improbability and sacrifice. I recognized the limitations of this romance – of course any relationship that lasts for a week can be idealized for the rest of your life, you never have to deal with mortgage payments or diapers or redistributing emotional labour – but still found it compelling and heartbreaking.
So yeah. It’s problematic and not brilliant writing. And I still liked it. Plus it took like ten minutes to read, so there’s that.
The only thing I remember from first year English is a lecture that argued that all creative writing (whether poetry or prose) is about the urge by authors to create something which will outlast them. That every poem or story is, in the end, a valiant gesture toward immortality. And that readers should read with an eye to the way the author intentionally and accidentally imbues their work with this impulse; that is, that the discerning reader will always be able to find evidence of the author’s vanity, of their arrogance in thinking their work will endure. At the time I found the argument moving and persuasive. Since then I think back on it more as an example of excellent teaching, it was a well paced lecture with convincing examples and analysis. Which isn’t to say I now thinking writing isn’t about immortality, just that I haven’t had cause to declare an allegiance in the great What is Writing For debate of humanity. Continue reading