"Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge - it's the only kind of power no one can take away from you."
Lee Min Jin wrote a masterpiece of a Korean family's detailed journey spanning 4 generations from year 1910to 1989. The novel begins in Yeongdo District in Busan, where the disabled and kindly Hoonie, agrees to an arranged marriage with the daughter of a poor farmer, Yangjin. Together, they manage a boarding house and have one daughter, Sunja. After Sunja turns 13th, Hoonie dies from tuberculosis, and Yangjin and Sunja are left to care for the boarding house on their own.
When Sunja turns 16th, she meets a wealthy fishmonger, Koh Hansu, who woos her; the couple begins a sexual relationship. Later, Sunja becomes pregnant, but Hansu informs Sunja that he cannot marry her because he is already married to a woman in Japan, and he intends to keep her as his mistress. Ashamed, Sunja reveals the truth about her pregnancy to her mother, who eventually confesses it to one of their guests - a kind minister-in-training suffering from tuberculosis. Baek Isak, the minister, tells Sunja he will marry her, raise her child as his own, and take her to Japan.
Sunja agrees to the plan and the couple moves to Osaka, where they stay with Isak’s brother Yoseb and sister-in-law Kyunghee. Isak begins work as a minister. Still, the family struggles with Japanese perceptions of Koreans and their limited opportunities. In order to pay for the cost of their passage to Osaka, Sunja sells a watch given to her by Hansu.
As time goes on, Sunja’s son Noa is born; soon after, Isak and Sunja have a second son, Mozasu. Shortly after Mozasu is born, tragedy befalls the family; Isak is forced into prison for a trumped-up charge from the Japanese government due to his Christian beliefs. Isak is imprisoned for years and is only released on his deathbed. He comes to see his family one last time before he dies.
Despite Yoseb’s resistance, Sunja starts to sell kimchi that she and Kyunghee make at a market to make extra money for the household. Soon after they begin their business, they are asked by the owner of a restaurant, named Kim Changho, to make kimchi at his restaurant daily, providing them with financial security. Despite Yoseb's hesitation, the women agree.
Unknowingly, Sunja’s former lover, Hansu, tracks her down after she sold her watch. And when the war is in full force, Hansu comes to tell her that the restaurant was actually his and that he intended to move her and her family to the countryside to protect them from the war. Sunja goes hesitantly to the farm and finally reunites with her mother, Yangjin, whom Hansu also tracks down.
After the war, the Baek family eventually returns to Osaka. The family continues to struggle in spite of Hansu's help. Noa expresses his interest in attending college. After finally being accepted to Waseda University and despite Sunja’s resistance, Noa asks the man he perceives as a family friend, Hansu, to pay for his college expenses. Hansu wholeheartedly agrees, refusing Sunja's offer to eventually pay him back. Soon after, Noa goes to Tokyo. At the same time, Mozasu hates school more and more, so he drops out of school and secures employment at a local pachinko parlor. Both boys feel they have found their niches. Noa starts dating a Japanese girl named Akiko, whilst Mozasu falls in love with a Korean woman named Yumi.
Soon, though, Noa’s life in Tokyo is spoiled. Akiko arrives uninvited to a dinner Noa was having with Hansu; he accidentally learns that Hansu has ties with the yakuza and is actually his biological father. Noa hurries home to ask his mother about it, and Sunja tells her son the truth.
Distraught by his paternity and feeling ashamed of being linked to corrupt blood, Noa leaves school and his family, traveling to Nagano, Japan to begin a new life. There, he lives undercover using a Japanese identity and name, Nobuo, and finds a job at a pachinko parlor. He marries a Japanese woman and has 4 children; he never visit or talk to his mother but regularly sending her money. During the same period, Mozasu marries Yumi, and they have a son named Solomon. But unfortunately when Solomon is a toddler, Yumi dies in a car accident. After Yumi’s death, Mozasu decides to relocate to Tokyo, taking Sunja with them to care for Solomon.
After 16 years, Noa is tracked down by Hansu at the request of Sunja. Hansu, then, informs Sunja that he has discovered Noa’s whereabouts. Together, they travel to Nagano, where Sunja reunites with her son in his office. Noa promises to reestablish a relationship with his mother, but soon after her visit, Sunja learns her son committed suicide.
In the meantime - when Solomon is a teenager - Mozasu has become a wealthy man, owning his own Pachinko parlours, and starts dating a Japanese woman named Etsuko, who has a troubled teenager daughter from her previous marriage named Hana.
At Yangjin’s (Sunja’s father) funeral, Hana is drawn to Solomon’s innocence so they flirt with one another, and begins a sexual relationship. He quickly falls in love with her, giving her large sum of money when asked, which she uses to disappear and run away to Tokyo.
Years later, Solomon attends college in the US, where he meets a Korean-American girlfriend named Phoebe. After graduation, Solomon and Phoebe move back to Tokyo, where Solomon has a job with a British firm, but Phoebe hates living in Japan. Solomon visits Hana in Tokyo hospital where she is dying of AIDS. After Solomon’s firm asks him to commit a corrupt dealing with an elderly Korean woman, he is fired. Soon after, Phoebe leaves Solomon, and he realises he wants to remain in Japan and help his father in his pachinko business.
The novel ends with Sunja visiting Isak’s grave, reflecting on her life. There, she meets a gravedigger who tells her that Noa continued to visit Isak’s grave after he knew that Isak had not been his biological father, which gives Sunja the closure and reassurance she needs. After the gravedigger leaves, Sunja buries a keychain she has with a picture of her two sons in Isak’s grave, and then returns to Kyunghee, her dear friend who is waiting at the house they share.
My take on this novel:
The stories were heart-wrenching at times, but the writing was always beautiful to read. For me, the most memorable sentence would be the opening one: "History has failed us, but no matter", because it is so poignant that history has truly failed them, such that I've never learned about the struggle for an identity that Korean had to face in Japan. It was def interesting, yet awful to read about the racism experienced by Koreans in Japan. And I honestly cannot wait for the series version of this and to see Lee MinHo, who will be playing as 'Hansu'💚