Book Review: The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

About the Book:

It is summer in Tokyo. Claire finds herself dividing her time between tutoring twelve-year-old Mieko in an apartment in an abandoned hotel and lying on the floor at her grandparents: daydreaming, playing Tetris, and listening to the sounds from the street above. The heat rises; the days slip by.

The plan is for Claire to visit Korea with her grandparents. They fled the civil war there over fifty years ago, along with thousands of others, and haven’t been back since. When they first arrived in Japan, they opened Shiny, a pachinko parlour. Shiny is still open, drawing people in with its bright, flashing lights and promises of good fortune. And as Mieko and Claire gradually bond, their tender relationship growing, Mieko’s determination to visit the pachinko parlour builds.

The Pachinko Parlour is a nuanced and beguiling exploration of identity and otherness, unspoken histories, and the loneliness you can feel within a family. Crisp and enigmatic, Shua Dusapin’s writing glows with intelligence.

From the author of Winter in Sokcho, which won the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Published by Scribe

Released 30th August 2022

My Thoughts:

This melancholic little novel orbits around displacement, both culturally and within one’s own family. Claire, our protagonist, identifies as Korean, yet can’t speak the language. She grew up in Switzerland speaking fluent French and also speaks Japanese, learnt as a means of communicating with her Korean grandparents who have lived in Japan since the Korean war. However, her grandparents still speak Korean, her grandmother in particular refusing to speak Japanese, so there is a three pronged barrier between them: generational, cultural, and language.

Just as it was with her first novel, Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin writes with such an immersive style. I was plunged into Japan, the setting of the novel, but also immersed into Korean culture, the two at odds with each other, given the context of why so many Koreans are settled in Japan. This is not a long novel but it covers a lot of ground and gives the reader a good grasp on the historical context needed for understanding Korean settlement within Japan and the neighbourhood dynamics resulting from this.

The character Mieko was a sad one for me to read about. Everything about her life was grim, father long gone, mother grieving the abandonment whilst pretending it isn’t permanent and trying desperately to turn Meiko into a whole other type of person – seemingly a non-Japanese one. Then there’s a line dropped in about a classmate of Meiko’s, who’ll I just remind you now is only ten years old, who ends his own life over the summer holidays. What an awful childhood and what sort of adults are these children growing up into? Incredibly sad. This insight into Japanese culture via Meiko and her mother does nothing to recommend Japan to the reader.

Claire’s main purpose for the trip to Japan is to accompany her grandparents on a return trip to Korea, their first since leaving after the war. For weeks, nothing is actioned and her grandparents don’t even seem to want to go. It’s not until after Claire is quite ill with an ear infection that they give in and make plans. Even so, things don’t go as Claire envisages, and by the end of the story, we see her coming to the realisation that the trip to Korea might actually have been more about her discovering her roots than a trip down memory lane for her grandparents.

I really enjoyed this and read it rapidly. Once again, the translation is flawless and you forget you’re even reading a translation. I am now pretty much a fan of Elisa Shua Dusapin and look forward to her next release.

Thanks to the publisher for the copy.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

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