The novel begins in 1910, in Korea, and continues almost until the end of the century. Korea is part of the Japanese Empire and the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the Koreans throughout that time coupled with war and peace and changing powers, is presented as it is experienced by a Korean family through four generations.
The first generation of the family begins with the birth of one child, Hoonie, a gentle, kind son who is unfortunately disabled with a club foot and a cleft palate. Fearing the continuation of that genetic deformity, they find his marriage prospects are very low. When a match is made with the last child of an impoverished family, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin, and she accepts him willingly. So begins the second generation of the family. Their union produces a daughter, Sunja. Sunja and her mother grew to love Hoonie dearly. When Sunja was 16, she was seduced by a mobster named Hansu. She believed that he loved her, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that he was married with children. This begins the third generation.
When Isak Baek, a pastor, comes to board at her mother’s boarding house and suffers a relapse of Tuberculosis, Sunja and her mother tenderly care for him, separating him from the other boarders, keeping them safe until he is well again. When he recovers and learns of Sunja’s plight, he offers to marry her to save her reputation and give the child a name. As opposed to the superstition that guides most of the poor and illiterate peasants, the bible verses guide him. Thus begins Sunya’s story.
Isak and Sunya move from Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee are happy to welcome them. They are a childless couple and are eager for the birth of their nephew. Noa is not told of his true parentage and he grows up believing Isak is his biological father. He is a good and obedient child with a personality that resembles Isak’s far more than his biological father, Hansu.
Sunja and Isak have a second child named Mozasu. Mozasu, is more like Hansu in personality, although Isak is his true parent. While Noa loves school, Mozasu leaves as soon as he obtains permission and begins to work as an apprentice for a man who owns Pachinko parlors, which are gambling establishments. It is one of the few employment opportunities open to Koreans in Japan. Although the reputation of some of the Koreans who run the establishments is questionable, his mentor is said to be reputable. Still, the sting of that line of work is always present.
When Noa passes his exams, he goes to Tokyo to study. He marries a Japanese American woman. His life takes a tragic turn when he discovers the secrets of his background. His pride is a large part of his personality and also that of many Koreans and Japanese. While pride often leads to loyalty to one’s family, on the one hand, it leads to foolish decisions and stubbornness on the other.
Eventually, Mozasu marries and has a child, Solomon. Solomon is the fourth generation of this family. Although eight decades have passed, it seems that history will keep repeating itself as Solomon chooses to go into business with his father The author illustrates how even though life changes, in many ways it stays the same through wars and upheavals, tragedies and good fortune, births and deaths.
The story spans several decades, and it is heartbreaking to see the inability of the characters to adapt and truly change and fit into the new ways of society, even when their financial status improves. They are often trapped by society or their old habits. Secrets that dominated the story, when revealed, were the cause of devastating consequences. The evils and hardships of the developing world infringed on their simple way of life and sometimes began to corrupt them as well. They were simple people with a simple way of life and the author’s simple prose made it seem as if their simple way of life was superior to the sophisticated life of those who considered themselves better. It alternated between feeling like a folk tale and feeling like a tragic memoir.
The audio version of the book placed the listener in the heart of their village in Korea and then in the cities of Japan. The narrator’s pace, tone and interpretation were perfect for the novel, the changing times and different characters. The unpretentious vocabulary and the straightforward execution of the story made it seem very authentic. As it spanned almost 100 years, it enlightened the reader about the history of the often troubled relationship between Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. As the decades passed and the wars came and went, the changing world was illustrated by the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the characters. While survival was a constant struggle for many Koreans, they seemed to persevere and accept their fate with stoicism. Both the Japanese and Korean culture discouraged a public display of emotion. Their strength seemed to lie in their ability to adjust to what befell them, either by ignoring the changes or adapting to them. However, their fear of public humiliation often pushed them into making rash decisions. Still, through it all, they were loyal to each other and it was obvious that as much as the Japanese did not want to do business with Koreans, whom they deemed ignorant and dirty, the Koreans did not want to do business with the Japanese who were unjust and unfair rulers and who could not be trusted since they never fully accepted the Koreans. They were always outsiders, even if they were natives to Japan and had never set eyes on Korea.