Claire is nearing 30 and feeling directionless. She’s come to Tokyo from Switzerland to visit her Korean grandparents, and has picked up work tutoring a 12-year-old Japanese girl, Mieko, in French. Mostly she’s walking and thinking, lying in bed playing Tetris, letting the days go by. Sleepless, she drifts through a strange summer.
Originally published in 2018 and recently translated from the French, The Pachinko Parlour is the second novel from Swiss-based writer Elisa Shua Dusapin. Atmosphere is the key here – nothing much happens in this slim little book but the devil is in the detail, following Claire through her days like a haze. Her odd, stilted relationships with others – Mieko and her professor mother, Mrs Ogawa; her long-distance academic boyfriend, Mathieu; her own grandparents, who have run a pachinko parlour named Shiny since coming to Japan half a century ago – are revealed through small interactions and snatches of dialogue. Gentle yet sensory and vivid descriptions of food and cityscapes slowly seep through the pages.
It’s an obvious reference point, but like Min Jin Lee’s 2017 historical epic Pachinko, Dusapin’s novel draws out the thorny truths of the Korean–Japanese conflict and its ongoing impacts on crises of national and personal identity. This trickles through generations down to Claire herself, and is exacerbated by the insistent childlike curiosity of Mieko, who, after hearing about Shiny, demands to pay a visit. Meanwhile, Claire is determined to visit Korea with her grandparents but pushes up against their reticence – perhaps a suppression of past traumas, a steely refusal to acknowledge them. The grandparents are fascinating character studies in the postwar attitude of just getting on with things – often when Claire asks them difficult questions, or tender ones, their responses are blasé and frequently not related at all.
Dusapin’s sparse, economical writing meanders – it never stays focused on one scene or idea for long, and is often broken into vignettes – so for readers who prefer plot-driven work, The Pachinko Parlour might be a tough sell. It calls to mind Melbourne writer Jessica Au’s recent award-winning novella Cold Enough for Snow, which similarly relies heavily on ambience to conjure the anxieties and unanswerable questions that exist in the spaces between loved ones. There’s an undeniable loneliness contained in these pages, a yearning for connection in the face of impossibility – and an acceptance that some of these desires might never come to pass.
Scribe, 176pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins), The Pachinko Parlour ".
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