- Title: The Orphan Master’s Son
- Author: Adam Johnson
- Genre: Literary Fiction
- Format: Audio book
- Source: Overdrive Digital Library
- Reviewed by: Valerie
- Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Description: 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.
Review: The Orphan Master’s Son tells the story of a simple man who dare to dream that life can be different. The premise is not so different, until you stop to consider that the main character began life effectively as an orphan in North Korea. The author has built a poignant story set within the context of his observations of North Korean culture. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the portrayal of North Korea, but I did find myself caught up in Pak Jun Do’s story.
One of the primary precepts of this book is that in North Korea it is the story rather than the truth that reigns supreme. This concept is played out over and over. Characters will present the story that they feel would be most palatable, rather than giving an accurate account of events as they unfolded. Conversely, these stories if accepted become “truth” even though it is clear that almost all players recognize that is not what actually happened.
I was never really clear if Pak Jun Do was truly the orphan master’s son who received the same treatment as the orphans that grew up with him or if he truly was an orphan who convinced himself otherwise. This distinction is largely irrelevant. His mother is gone, taken away from him when he was young, and from then on his lot in life is that of an orphan and he begins his lifelong desire to love and be loved.
I was a bit horrified at the description of the living conditions described for North Korea. At first I thought that maybe I misunderstood and this was a futuristic dystopian version. My reading of the book was timely, giving the current events unfolding in North Korea. Recent news articles have convinced me that the author got it right. I found it easier to focus on the characters and their plights rather than give this too much deep consideration to this harsh and depressing reality.
While slow-paced, The Orphan Master’s Son was a captivating story. Pak Jun Do is “just a guy.” He rises from the most humble beginnings and faces obstacle after obstacle, and yet his spirit cannot be broken. He holds on to what integrity he can while struggling to survive the twisted events that comprise his life. It was tough to call him the “good guy” because he does some awful things to survive. Yet, when considered within the framework of the story he is as good as it gets.
I know some people get frustrated by changing perspectives, so be warned that this book is told using a few distinct voices. I felt that the changing perspectives lent depth to the story. The changing perspectives also created mystery for the reader, struggling to find the “truth,” or at least what you choose to accept as the “truth.”
This was a really unique read for me and I really enjoyed it. At times, the subject matter was a bit heavy, but the richly drawn characters and the spirit of Pak Jun Do made it all worthwhile.
Cover note: The cover is simple, yet eye-catching. After reading the book and noting the tiger’s relevance, I like it even more.