The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A couple of years ago, I read and loved Winter in Sokcho, a beautiful, dreamlike novella that touched on themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to societal norms. Set against the backdrop of a rundown guest house in Sokcho, the book centred on an intriguing relationship between a young French-Korean woman and a Frenchman staying at the hotel. Now Elisa Shua Dusapin is back with her second book, The Pachinko Parlour, another wonderfully enigmatic novella that shares many qualities with its predecessor.

As in her previous work, Dusapin draws on her French-Korean heritage for Pachinko, crafting an elegantly expressed story of family, displacement, fractured identity and the search for belonging. Here we see people caught in the hinterland between different countries, complete with their respective cultures and preferred languages. It’s a novel that exists in the liminal spaces between states, the borders or crossover points from one community to the next and from one family unit to another.

At first sight, the story being conveyed here seems relatively straightforward – a young woman travels to Japan to take her Korean grandparents on a trip to their homeland, a place they haven’t seen in fifty years. Dig a little deeper, however, and the narrative soon reveals itself to be wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface yet harbouring fascinating layers of depth, a combination that gives the book a haunting or spectral quality, cutting deep into the soul. 

The novella is narrated by Claire, a young woman on the cusp of turning thirty, brought up in Switzerland, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Mathieu. It is summer, and Claire has travelled to Japan to stay with her Korean grandparents in the Nippori area of the city, home to the sizeable Zainichi community of exiled Koreans. But despite having lived in Japan for the past fifty years, Claire’s grandparents have not fully integrated into the Japanese community and culture, almost certainly because their move was prompted by the Korean Civil War in the early 1950s. A displacement process that forced Koreans to choose between the North and the South of the country, should they wish to keep their Korean identity while living in Japan.

The transition proved particularly challenging for Claire’s grandmother, who resisted assimilation into her adopted country by not speaking Japanese. Now in her nineties, she is showing signs of dementia, regressing into childhood as she plays with her dolls. Meanwhile, Claire’s grandfather must work till he drops, managing the faded Pachinko parlour (a legal, low-stakes gambling emporium) opposite the couple’s house. Aside from the Pachinko parlour – ironically named Shiny as it is anything but – the grandparents have virtually no social contact with other people, existing largely within their own limited, claustrophobic world.

With the proposed trip to Korea merely weeks away, Claire is struggling with the situation in Japan. Her grandparents are showing little enthusiasm for the trip, avoiding any discussions or preparations for the journey, despite their longstanding ties to the country. Communication seems to be a significant barrier for the trio, particularly as Claire is more fluent in Japanese than Korean, having studied the former at a Swiss university. Consequently, she spends much of her time lying on the ground floor in the suffocating heat, playing games on her phone or looking up Korea on the net. The atmosphere in the house is dizzying and oppressive as the noise from the nearby Pachinko parlours proves impossible to shut out…

The only respite for Claire is the time she spends with Mieko, a ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother – the rather cold and judgmental Mrs Ogawa – in an abandoned hotel. Mrs Ogawa – a French literature tutor by profession – has employed Claire to teach Mieko French during the school holidays, a task the mother shows little interest in helping with herself.

As the days slip by, a tentative friendship develops between Claire and Mieko – a slightly awkward yet touching bond born out of a shared sense of loneliness and loss. (Of significance here is Mieko’s father – no longer on the scene, having abandoned his family several years before.) The dialogue between this unlikely duo is beautifully expressed, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of the age gap between Claire and Mieko. Moreover, the young girl’s curiosity is also a factor, indicating a growing awareness of the mysteries of the adult world.  

Dusapin’s style is wonderfully pared back and minimalist, almost like a prose poem at times, leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill the gaps. Thematically and stylistically, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, another haunting exploration of isolation and loss through a distanced family relationship. And yet, there is something unsettling here as well, echoing the signs of tension that run through Winter in Sokcho. In Pachinko, we find passing mentions of disturbing elements, from dying species and the presence of toxins in the earth to the shocking death of one of Mieko’s classmates. The story is punctuated with unnerving motifs, hinting at a troubled world where humanity must learn to coexist – both with itself and with the natural environment.

In Claire’s grandparents, we see people buffeted by history and events outside their control, wounded by the longstanding pain of Korean-Japanese history and the conflict of Civil War. Meanwhile, Claire is grappling with questions of identity and belonging herself, having grown up in Switzerland following her mother’s flight from the Zainichi community in Japan, largely for the opportunities that Europe could provide. As such, Claire too is caught between cultures, struggling to communicate across the societal and linguistic divides, prompting a sense of separation from her elderly grandparents. If anything, it is Mathieu – Claire’s absent boyfriend, busily working on his thesis in Switzerland – who seems to have the stronger relationship with the elderly couple, having bonded with them relatively easily during a previous trip.

As the novella draws to a close, there is a gradual increase in tension as the family’s departure draws near. Interestingly, just as in Sokcho, Dusapin ends Pachinko on an enigmatic note, prompting the reader to question the true meaning of the book. Whose journey are we witnessing here? Is it Claire’s grandparents’ pilgrimage – possibly the last chance to return to their homeland before illness or death intervenes – or is it Claire’s, a quest for attachment and belonging in a fractured, multicultural world?

I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself – ideally by reading the book, which I highly recommend. This is a beautifully judged novella, a layered exploration of displacement, belonging and unspoken tragedies from times past. A beguiling read for #WITMonth and beyond.

The Pachinko Parlour will be published by Daunt Books on 18th August. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a proof copy.

24 thoughts on “The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

  1. Marcie McCauley

    As we had similar responses to Sokcho, now of course I want to read this as well. Am especially intrigued by what you’ve said about the ending as that’s one of the elements that has stuck with me, many months after reading her earlier novel (which is strange, for as you say, nothing really happens, at least not the kind of things that usually result in residing in a reader’s memory). Thanks for letting me know about her latest!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Marcie, and I think there’s a great chance that you’ll enjoy this one too! She’s very good at endings while still maintaining an air of mystery or ambiguity about the stories. They’re subtle and understated but memorable too – that’s quite a tricky combination to pull off, but she makes everything feel very natural and unforced. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Well this sounds beautiful, I remember your enthusiastic for that other novella. Both sound like novels I would like. I particularly like the sound of the relationship between Claire and Meiko.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d like the relationships here – and the focus on cross-cultural differences within Claire’s family. A good one to keep in mind for the future.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. I must admit that I don’t know very much about the history behind the Korean Civil War either, and while it’s clearly a factor in the family’s situation here, it’s never laboured or overdone. The occasional references to disturbing events / images hint at unspoken trauma and pain, but it’s all very subtly done (leaving the reader to join to dots). A really interesting writer with thought-provoking stories to tell.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she clearly has a talent for that! I think there’s a third novel too (not yet translated as far as I can tell), so I’m hoping Daunt will publish that at some point. Fingers crossed…

      Reply
  3. mallikabooks15

    Lovely review. I couldn’t help but notice the similar threads (themes and plot) between Jessica Au (which also I am yet to read) and this one. Questions of identity and belonging certainly go so deep for people between cultures, countries and languages, perhaps much more than one realises on first glance or at first thought. Popping this one on the TBR as well

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Yes, I couldn’t help but think of Cold Enough for Snow as I was writing my review of this – partly because of the similarities in themes and partly for the mood / atmosphere these writers evoke through their books. There’s definitely a sense that these characters are caught in a sort of hinterland or liminal space between countries and cultures, occupying positions that straddle both sides. It must be such an unsettling situation to deal with, especially within families.

      Reply
      1. mallikabooks15

        To a small extent I can relate, since my parents too come from different cultures, though within the country, and I can get a sense of claiming all as well as feeling that I don’t fully belong to any.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I can imagine…That sense of feeling as if you don’t fully belong to either culture / country is very much present here. I think Dusapin gets that across so well by showing rather than telling (if that makes sense).

          Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. Funnily enough, when I started reading your thoughts I was reminded of the Au book and then you mentioned it; that sense of dislocation, the unreliable narrator and the feeling of not fitting in – all very interesting. Sounds like a good one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So many connections between these two books, they’d make a fascinating pairing for a book group discussion. I think you might like this one, Karen…

      Reply
  5. Liz Dexter

    This sounds very intriguing and attractive, I thought of the Au book, too, even though I’ve read neither (hooray for the blogging community!). A strong one for WIT, for sure, with its themes of language within the book as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, its publication is perfectly timed for WIT Month – and, as you say, the themes of language and cross cultural barriers make it all the more relevant to the event. An ideal fit.

      Reply
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  9. Max Cairnduff

    I finished this just a couple of days ago. I agree with the Au comparison and I think you bring the book’s themes out very nicely. There is a real sense here, partly explicit, that what what Claire sees as work/help to grandparents or Mieko is really about her own needs.

    Madame Ogawa I took to be a reference to Yoko Ogawa. Mieko could be to Mieko Kawakami or that could just be coincidence.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome – glad to hear you got some interesting things out of it!

      I hadn’t thought about a possible reference to Yoko Ogawa at all, but now that you’ve mentioned I think you might be right. There’s a sense of isolation and alienation in some of Ogawa’s work that also resonates here. I’d be fascinated to know if that’s a conscious nod on Dusapin’s part or not – but it certainly seems plausible. Interesting thought about Mieko Kawakami, too – you’re making me want to back to this for another look!

      Reply
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