Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

There has been great praise for Johnson's Orphan Master's Son around book sites for several weeks now, so I was finally convinced to pick it up. And it definitely lives up to the hype.

Shamefully, I don't know much about North Korea (although, I suppose, a lot of very smart people also don't know much). I know that the country is a wacky insanely restrictive dictatorship known for horrific human rights violations and that Kim Jong Il was short and wore platform shoes and was nuts. Orphan Master's Son is a work of fiction, so I know it can't be taken for a literal report of life in North Korea, but whew, is it scary.

Johnson's novel follows the life of the orphan Jun Do, named after one of the famed North Korean martyrs. He's a kidnapper, a radio interpreter on a sailing ship, a prisoner, and, lastly, he takes on the persona of famed Commander Ga. Jun Do's story is heartbreaking and completely engaging, as the reader sees a young man reinventing his life over and over again until he decides to not simply accept his reality but change it whatever the consequences.

The most frightening part of the book is its depiction of life inside North Korea, which is uncannily like living in Orwell's 1984. There's the oppression by "Dear Leader" or the way the citizens must live a life of doublethink--simultaneously believing they have a great and free life and knowing they don't.

Johnson's skilled at making the repressive North Korea come to life, but he's equally talented at making Jun Do someone you care for and desperately want to succeed. His story is a great and powerful adventure, and though it's sad and awful at parts, it's not a gloomy story.

I'm disappointed in my review because I don't know how to describe the book well, but I can say it was utterly absorbing and that I highly recommend it.


  1. I also read and reviewed this book recently here:

    I would say what captured my attention was the elaborate details which brought the characters to life. Johnson did almost 6 years of research on the book including a trip to Korea to give the story a lot of authenticity.

    This balance between a nice plot and reality was one of other interesting things to me

  2. Yeah, I was impressed by how well Johnson was able to bring North Korea to life, especially considering what a closed-off society it is.