‘The Pachinko Parlour’ by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Review)

This year’s Women in Translation Month reviews have thus far come in pairs, with trips to Japan, France, Sweden and Brazil, but there’s time for one last journey, and it’s hard to pin the destination down to just one location.  There’s a hint of Switzerland, a promise of Korea and a whole lot of Japan involved in today’s choice, but what it boils down to is a woman spending a summer with relatives and some acquaintances – right across from a rather noisy business.  Let’s head off to Tokyo, then, for this year’s final #WITMonth adventure 🙂

Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour (translated by Anneesa Abbas Higgins, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) follows Swiss woman Claire on her summer holidays in a rather steamy Tokyo.  She’s there to spend some time with her nonagenarian grandparents, and at the end of the summer there’s an even bigger trip in store.  You see, her grandparents were born in Korea, but haven’t been there since moving to Japan during the Korean war, and now Claire is going to accompany them on their homecoming journey.

However, she has other plans in the meantime.  After spotting a job ad on a university message board, she becomes the French-language tutor for Mieko, a young Japanese girl who will be travelling to Switzerland for study.  As the two become closer, Claire begins to reflect on her own mixed heritage, and that of her grandparents.  Mieko’s concerns about what awaits her in Europe mirrors Claire’s own concerns about the impending trip across the sea – if it ever comes off, that is.

Shua Dusapin shot to fame in the Anglosphere with the excellent Winter in Sokcho, a short, atmospheric novel set during a freezing winter on the Korean coast, which took out the 2021 National Book Award in Translation in the US.  The combination of writer and translator Abbas Higgins are now back with a follow-up, a book with a slightly different feel.  There’s another young(ish) woman with time on her hands, but this time it’s the sweltering Japanese summer providing the backdrop to the story.

Claire is approaching thirty, and while she’s happy enough with her life, and with her partner, there’s a sense of something missing.  Just as Winter in Sokcho revolved around the protagonist’s repressed French heritage, here it’s the underdeveloped Korean side to Claire’s identity that provides the impetus for the story.  She’s arranging the trip for her grandparents, one last opportunity to revisit their mother country before it’s too late, yet it’s tempting to say that it’s Claire who needs to go more than them.  They certainly seem in no hurry to start packing, no matter how much she prods them…

Identity, then, is at the heart of the novel, with Claire reflecting on what might have been:

I used to be able to speak Korean, but I lost it when French became my main language.  My grandfather used to correct my mistakes, but not any more.  We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions.  We never speak in Japanese.
p.18 (Scribe Publications, 2022)

This reluctance on the part of her grandparents to communicate in Japanese will come as little surprise to anyone with any knowledge of Korean-Japanese history, and their struggles with identity are just as important a part of the novel as Claire’s.  We get fleeting glimpses of their lives in Japan as so-called zainichi Koreans, keeping to themselves and their community and avoiding Japanese wherever possible.

The pachinko parlour of the title is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been to Japan.  It’s not just a gambling establishment, as there are connotations of seediness involved, and these parlours are the domain of the zainichi Koreans, who receive tax breaks for running them.  Even discussing her grandparents’ business is slightly awkward for Claire:

I choose my words carefully.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan too.  Pachinko isn’t seen as gambling because the balls are exchanged for sweets, toilet paper, bottles of water, toothpaste.  Or dominoes.  People swap them for money once they leave the parlour.  Anonymously, through a hole in the wall, somewhere near the pachinko parlour. (p.54)

With loud music, bright flashing lights and row upon row of machines spitting out small metallic balls, it’s little wonder that Mieko is just as fascinated as her mother is appalled by the idea of her visiting one.

Although Claire is allegedly there to teach Mieko French, in reality she’s a glorified babysitter, entertaining the girl while her mother prepares for the upcoming school year.  Identity raises its ugly head here, too, with Mieko worrying about being sent abroad, and whether or not she’ll be able to fit in.  Claire recognises herself in the young girl and her identity issues, and does her best to ease her mind, while wondering if Mieko’s mother really knows what she’s doing by sending her daughter overseas.

I’m always a little hesitant about novels by foreigners that are set in Japan, but The Pachinko Parlour does fairly well on that score.  Claire is an outsider, describing rather than exoticising, and Shua Dusapin manages to give us a taste of the country without it veering into cliché.  The book evokes memories of my own time in Japan, reminding me of Family Mart, cramped rooms, train journeys and the awful summer humidity.  There’s just enough of Japan here without pretending it’s the main focus of the novel – which is a blessing.

The Pachinko Parlour doesn’t quite live up to the writer’s previous work in English, but that’s more down to the excellence of Winter in Sokcho than due to any real flaw in the follow-up work.  It’s an enjoyable short novel about taking time out to consider your past, and your place in the world, enjoying a short break before moving on to the next stage.  Mieko, Claire and her grandparents all have their own journeys to go on, but their paths overlap for one brief summer, allowing them to reflect on how they’ve got to this point – and, luckily enough, we get to share the experience with them 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘The Pachinko Parlour’ by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Review)

  1. Good review. I enjoyed this though I agree it’s not quite as strong as Sokcho. On the Japan bit, I did recognise it from my visit but I think it helps that the perspectives are outsider perspectives, so it’s not purporting to give an internal view.


    1. Max – As a lover of all things J-Lit, I’ve been burnt a few times by books by foreigners set in Japan, so I’m always relieved when that doesn’t happen 😉


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