The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

OrphanMasterFrom Goodreads: An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves.”

☺☺☺☺

This is the first novel set in North Korea that I’ve read. That’s not surprising, seeing how cut off North Korea is from the rest of the world. I realize that the author has had to imagine quite a bit of this book, simply because of the setting, but it is apparent that he has done extensive research. I found his depiction of North Korea, especially in the first part, quite believable.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. It contains a lot of violence. I was often struck by the stark contrast between the matter-of-fact voice and the actual events: “The old cannery had had a bad batch of tins and many citizens were lost to botulism. The problem proved impossible to locate, so they built a new cannery next to the old one.”

At first, I did not like Pak Jun Do very much. He is very passive, and it takes some time to understand that that is his way of dealing with his life, over which he has very little control. He tries to stay detached from people because one misstep can have dire consequences for him or the people around him. 

The second part of the book is quite different. While the first part has a factual feel to it, the second part seemed almost fantastical to me. The story reveals itself through the voice of an interrogator, propaganda snippets, and flashbacks. It takes some time to paste the story together, but it becomes clear that Jun Do has reinvented himself and is now almost the exact opposite of who he was in the first part. I liked him much better at this point.

I was surprised that the division into two parts that felt so different didn’t bother me. But, really, it didn’t. Hats off to Adam Johnson for pulling that of. In the end, it is a perfect way to show to what ridiculous lengths a totalitarian system will go when “the story is more important than the person.”

Based on this book, I’d like to read Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, but I think I need a little break from such a bleak subject. I recently found out that Jamie Ford has a new book out, Songs of the Willow Frost. My library just got that book, so I will take “Asia” as the general theme to string these books together.

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3 comments

  1. I saw this one at the bookstore and wanted to grab a copy. I’ve seen good reviews, such as yours, so I might add it to the list. Jamie Ford’s Songs of the Willow Frost is also on my list, I’ve heard good things!

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