REVIEW: The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin

In brief: Claire is spending the summer in Tokyo with her grandparents in preparation for them to visit Korea, over fifty years after they left. She tutors and babysits Mieko, listening to the sounds of her grandparents’ pachinko parlour at night.

The good: Beautifully written with the feelings of loss of displacement.

The not-so-good: Read it over a couple of days.

Why I chose it: Thanks to Scribe for the copy.

Year: 2022 (originally 2018 in French)

Pages: 171

Translator: Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Publisher: Scribe Publications

Setting: Mainly Tokyo, Japan

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Pachinko parlours in Japan are fascinating. Shiny and loud, they look like fun, promising great prizes. I never did work out how to play pachinko (or win anything), but I did bring home a silver ball as a souvenir. To me, it’s easy to see why the pachinko parlour in this story is so captivating to the characters in The Pachinko Parlour. It promises fun, yet it’s elusive to try to obtain what it promises.

The pachinko parlour in question, Shiny, belongs to Claire’s grandparents in Tokyo. Claire has come over for the summer, with the intent of accompanying her grandparents to Korea. It would be their first visit back after fleeing the country during the Korean war. Her grandparents are relatively dismissive about the whole thing, preferring their daily routines. In the meantime, Claire agrees to tutor Mieko in French. Mieko lives in a former hotel (her bedroom is the hotel pool) and becomes a sort of companion to Claire. They venture out to different places (Disneyland, Heidi’s village) but Mieko would really prefer seeing the pachinko parlour. Her mother wants more for Mieko – European finishing school, fluency in French – but Mieko really isn’t too sure. Like Claire, she is somewhat adrift this summer. Claire is waiting on her grandparents, and trying to communicate with them with difficulty. Not only does she not speak Korean (and her grandmother little Japanese), but she finds it difficult to get into their mindset. Her grandfather is devoted to the pachinko parlour and her grandmother has her own routine of shopping and cooking, although her memory is fading.

The final part of the story, as Claire and her grandparents set off on the trip back to Korea via Miyajima Island (just off the coast of Hiroshima) hit the hardest for me. Claire is determined to do what she thinks her grandparents want, hoping that in Korea they will not be the outsiders they are in Japan. Yet her grandparents have their own thoughts on the matter, which they reveal at a crucial time. It’s a confronting way to consolidate the themes of identity and feeling like an outsider, even a bit lost in places where the characters just don’t quite fit in to the societal norms. Even the game of pachinko sits on the boundaries of what is accepted/legal (you ‘win’ gifts, but you can switch them secretly for money, which is illegal in Japan). Every character presents as they are, no pretence. Claire’s grandmother is starting to get forgetful, Claire herself is frustrated with her grandparents and even the sandwich board lady who promotes Shiny gets on Claire’s nerves with her lack of ambition.

The story is full of emotion, but it is somewhat repressed (in a good way). You can feel the tension and frustration in each of the characters, but it never simmers over. The weather and other settings add greatly to the feeling of oppression and otherness. The translation captures all of this so well, in so few well chosen words. The Pachinko Parlour is a story of character rather than plot movement, and it’s fascinating.


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