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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Koreaby Adam Johnson
Synopses & Reviews
An epic novel that elevates its acclaimed author to a whole new level, The Orphan Master’s Son is a stunning work of fiction that follows a young man’s undercover journey in 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—and that can end only in freedom or death.
Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat, then a professional kidnapper who in turn lies low and lets others impose identities on him. Finally, in a secret fight for freedom, he engages in an act of outrageous impersonation, assuming the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il and daring to fall in love with a legendary actress “so pure she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
Part breathless thriller, part unique coming-of-age story, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a vivid portrait, in devastating detail, of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, humor, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
"Johnson's novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment — or worse — but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book's most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: '...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.' In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson (Parasites Like Us) juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters, whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel." Abraham Verghese
"[A] fantastical, careening tale....Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief....Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level." Booklist (Starred review)
"Impossible to forget...Adam Johnson unleashes a big, thrilling, and fully realized talent." Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
"Remarkable...Johnson’s heroes are isolated and alienated, but are capable of feeling just the right emotion at just the right time." The New Yorker
"[Johnson’s] characters are wonderfully weird and charming, and he is so witty a storyteller that this strange novel manages to captivate." The Washington Post
"Teeming with clever conceits, superb turns of phrase, observations as precise as Updike’s, and tonal echoes of Vonnegut, Boyle, and George Sanders...The author is wise, weird and worth watching." Seattle Weekly
"An addictive novel of daring ingenuity, a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty, and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love — The Orphan Master's Son is a brave and impressive book." David Mitchell
"I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece." Charles Bock
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred review)
"[A] vivid, violent portrait of a nation...[a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot-on saga. Johnson's metathriller, spiked with gory intrigues and romantic subplots, is a ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory in a world where everyone's 'a survivor who has nothing to live for.'" Elle
"Ambitious, violent, audacious — and stunningly good." O Magazine
"The Kim Jong Il that we meet in Adam Johnson's second novel, set in North Korea, is no cartoon villain, no Team America marionette. He's a three-dimensional character — a hairsprayed, jump-suited, hopping-mad monomaniac, sure, but a man in whom we can recognize some of our own jealousies and desires....Peering into one of the world's most closed societies, the author has located the similarities between us and them, offering the possibility that we in the United States might be able to relate to the cognitive dissonance North Koreans experience on a daily basis. The idea that we can clearly recognize the people behind that iron curtain — that we can identify with their psychological disconnects — ought to console us, just as it ought to trouble us." Bookforum
About the Author
Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. His other works include Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. He lives in San Francisco.
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