At the opening of this novel, we meet Sunja, a young girl who toils away, helping her mother run a small boardinghouse on a small island in Korea. When a young, handsome minister comes to stay with them and falls ill, he seems to be the answer to their predicament, as he is willing to marry her, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child. As he carries her off to Japan, her life takes many unexpected twists and turns, and this poignant story follows her through the next generations.
Through the telling of Sunja’s life and the life of her mother and sons, the reader also learns of the experience of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese through much of the twentieth century. Although many of Korean descent were born in Japan, they were not allowed to be Japanese citizens and were treated as foreigners in their own country, forced to obtain a Korean passport at the age of 14 and having to recertify this every 3 years, with the constant threat of deportation. They were denied many educational and employment opportunities and often the only way to earn money was in businesses such as the “pachinko” halls, pachinko being a form of pinball or slot machine. At the same time, anyone involved in these businesses were looked down upon and considered gangsters, whether or not they actually were.
What is apparent throughout the story is that this oppression casts a heavy shadow on each and every member of Sunja’s family and each comes to bear the burden in his or her own way. There is some success and much heartbreak in the course of Sunja’s life as a consequence of this and it ranges from very outright to more subtle.
The more I think about this story and sit with it, the more I realize how much is here to think about and appreciate.
I think you will too.