Wednesday, February 1, 2012
"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson
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.