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The Orphan Master's Sonby Adam Johnson
2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
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.
"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
"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
"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
“A daring and remarkable novel.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Gripping....Deftly blending adventure, surreal comedy and Casablanca-style romance, the novel takes readers on a jolting ride through an Orwellian landscape of dubious identity and dangerous doublespeak.” San Jose Mercury News
“This is a novel worth getting excited about....Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable....Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim's North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner." The Washington Post
“The single best work of fiction published in 2012....The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” The Wall Street Journal
“Remarkable and heartbreaking....To [the] very short list of exceptional novels that also serve a humanitarian purpose The Orphan Master’s Son must now be added.” The New Republic
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY:
The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Financial Times • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Plain Dealer • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Slate • Salon • BookPage • Shelf Awareness
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother — a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang — and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He 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.”
In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.
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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