“History has failed us, but no matter.” When a writer opens her second novel with a sardonic statement like that, you hope that she’s up to the task of making it stick. Have no fear, Min Jin Lee is. Starting in the early 20th century, Pachinko (Grand Central, $27) chronicles the fortunes of a Korean family, first in a Korea under Japanese occupation, then as immigrants in Japan. The pachinko parlor that the family runs while in Japan is a perfect symbol of the kinds of hardships Korean immigrants in Japan face. The gambling establishment is their road to a better life. In fact, it’s the only such road. Perhaps this gives you the impression that the novel is only good as social commentary, its characters puppets. Actually, the reverse of is closer to the truth. It’s as if Lee started with the minutest details of her characters’ lives and the commentary grew out of it organically. When she observes how quickly Yangjin and Sunja have to get over Hoonie’s death, “At his burial, Yangjin and her daughter were inconsolable. The next morning, the young widow rose from her pallet and returned to work,” you feel the hardscrabble life of a Korean peasant all the more. One reviewer has aptly compared Lee to Thomas Mann. This is one book you can lose yourself in.
Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice, The Leavers (Algonquin, $25.95), by Lisa Ko, is an exploration of the lives of a family of Chinese immigrants. Polly, an undocumented immigrant, is rounded up in a raid on the nail salon where she works, gets caught up in the system, and eventually is repatriated to China. Her eleven-year-old son doesn’t know where she’s gone or what happened to her. She’s just gone. Fostering with a kind, intelligent couple (both are professors) in the suburbs, Deming has difficulty recovering from the trauma and confusion of his early life. The book is timely and the subject important, but the strength of the novel lies in the composition of the principal characters, showing the depth of their humanity, their worthiness of our empathy.
In the Midst of Winter (Atria, $28), by master storyteller Isabel Allende, begins on a cold and snowy day in Brooklyn. After a traffic accident brings them together, Richard Bowmaster and Evelyn Ortega discover they’re connected by a dark secret. This also involves Lucia Maraz, Richard’s tenant and colleague, who he turns to for help after the incident. Owing to circumstances, our three protagonists, plus one dog, find themselves becoming closer while going to extraordinary lengths to hide their secret. As Allende narrates their various pasts, it becomes clear that each of them faces a personal winter, living a life frozen in place. Richard is a professor who believes the great passions of his life have come and gone. He maintains strict order to keep his regrets under control. Lucia, despite the struggles and disappointments she endured in her native Chile, still searches for happiness in the unlikeliest of places. Evelyn is a refugee from the violence in Guatemala, where she was robbed of family and future. Together this trio discovers, as Albert Camus wrote, an “invincible summer” within that slowly melts the frost enshrouding their lives and opens them to renewed hope and love. This is a beautiful story that will see you through all the seasons to come.