review of Min Jin Lee's novel Pachinko

A captivating journey through the twentieth century as experienced by four generations of endearing, inspiring, and sometimes maddening characters.

Noa's arc is particularly memorable and frustrating. His life is defined by struggles with identity, and a sudden insight leads him to abruptly leave a woman he loves:

Noa didn't care about being Korean when he was with her; in fact, he didn't care about being Korean or Japanese with anyone. He wanted to be, to be just himself, whatever that meant; he wanted to forget himself sometimes. But that wasn't possible. It would never be possible with her. ... seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

He's confident nothing productive could come from discussing this with her, so he ends the relationship without explanation. But the ideology that measures a person's worth by their lineage is not just assaulting him from outside; he's internalized it:

All my life, I have had Japanese telling me that my blood is Korean—that Koreans are angry, violent, cunning, and deceitful criminals. All my life, I had to endure this. ...and now I learn that my blood is yakuza blood. I can never change this, no matter what I do. It would have been better if I were never born. How could you have ruined my life? How could you be so imprudent? A foolish mother and a criminal father. I am cursed.

Again totally confident in his judgment of the situation, he cuts off contact with his mother, drops out of school, and eventually kills himself. By fixating on the thing he cannot fix, he discards so much opportunity. He squanders his mother's tireless work; he repays her love and sacrifice with cruelty and heartache.