Buggy’s Review of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Publication Date: Expected January 10, 2012
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
ARC compliments of Random House via NetGalley
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, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
What can you say about a book that sent you through a wide range of emotions? More to the point, what can you say about a book that you struggled to read, not because it was poorly written or anything like that, but because your mind simply could not grasp the fact that such actions as happened within the story were true and all to real? Well after reading this book, I can say that it’s good. Real good. I mean, leaves you thinking long after you have finished, good.
I’ve read a great many books during the course of my nine lives and while all of them have left me with the desire to learn more about the events or people depicted within the pages, very few of them have ever left me staring at the wall in deep contemplation afterwards. This book succeeded in doing that.
I warn you now; this is not a book to pick up with the intention of a “little light reading”. Johnson spares the reader nothing. The story is very much in your face and heavy on your brain. I will even go so far as to say that it will change the way you look at things. Maybe not all things, but a great many nonetheless.
The only problem that I had with the story was the way in which it was told. Made up of two parts, the first half focuses entirely on Pak Jun Do and is told in the third person narrative, while the second half is told from three different voices and alternates between first and third person narrative. Now normally shifts in points of view don’t always prove distracting to me, but the way it was done in this book made me twitchy. Between the Loudspeaker propaganda story, the third person narrative focusing on Commander Ga and his time spent with Sun Moon, and the first person narrative of the Interrogator, I found the second half to be overwhelming and confusing at times. While I could see what Johnson was trying to do in this second half, I’d have been happier if the Interrogators part had been it’s own separate section rather than blended in with the other two.
Still, Johnson did a wonderful job depicting how the government of North Korea overshadows the lives of its citizens and I must applaud him for being brave enough to actually visit the country. No sadly, as much as my curiosity has been piqued, this feline will not be traveling there any time soon.