naessa, October 22, 2014 (view all comments by naessa)
Since this title won the Pulitzer, it probably doesn’t need any more praise from me, but it possible the best book I read in 2013. For most of the world, North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery. The events portrayed in The Orphan Master’s Son are fantastical and absurd, yet who can say what is real and what is imagined? All I know is I couldn’t stop reading. Imagine an entire country of over 20 million suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and you’ll have an idea of life in the DPRK as depicted in the book. Remarkably, however, despite the brutality and despair of life under a totalitarian regime inherent in the subject matter, the story was neither disheartening nor hopeless. I highly recommend it.
Johnson's novel of North Korea presents the insular nation as almost comically ridiculous before veering into black and tragic territory. Pak Jun Do, the titular orphan master's son, serves as an almost picaresque hero in a world that is more 1984 than recognizable. In a country where lies become truth when they are agreed to, where identities can be erased with the nod of the Dear Leader's head, where not fitting into the system will almost certainly kill you, Pak Jun Do slips into experiences that should result in his obliteration with the silence of a fish. Survivor, kidnapper, spy, prisoner--he fills all these roles and more as he exposes the idiosyncrasies and insanities of North Korea under Kim Jong Il. Driven by his love for the famous North Korean actress Sun-moon, Pak Jun Do follows the passionate heart he keeps hidden under a stoic face.
Johnson won pretty much all the major awards last year, and it's easy to see why. He makes this world, so foreign to Western eyes, come alive in all its absurdity and horror. It's easy to love Pak Jun Do, whose inner torments and triumphs against all odds seem to have something profound to say about the human spirit and the drive for fulfillment and wholeness we all face, no matter the obstacles. The novel alternates between three separate voices--the propaganda announcer on the radio, a third person narrator following Pak Jun Do, and a first person interrogator who is attempting to learn the story of Commander Ga, husband of Sun-moon and rival of Kim Jung Il. As these stories intertwine around and through each other, journeying from the seas around the Korean peninsula to a Texas ranch, and from a prison camp to the shores of Japan, Johnson allows us to ask questions about truth, about love, about what makes us who we are, and about human nature. The plot barrels forward without ever becoming trite, and as Pak Jun Do's world becomes increasingly labyrinthine and complicated, it also becomes richer and more rewarding for the reader, culminating in a climax that I completely adored.
It's been a great reading year for me so far, but this is currently one of my front runners for my book of the year: just absolutely compelling and, despite those Orwellian tones, like nothing I've ever read. I'm guessing it's too complex (and maybe even dark) for my tenth grade students, but this is the kind of book I would love to teach in school if I can find a way to fit it in, simply to expose more people to it.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (4 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)
Rachel Coker, November 25, 2013 (view all comments by Rachel Coker)
If I had to describe this book in one word, I would call it "haunting." I had vivid dreams in which I was trying to escape from North Korea while reading this novel. It's fiction, but of the sort that may contain deeper truths than non-fiction often does. This isn't light, fun reading, but if you're up for a challenging, absorbing, disturbing book, I highly recommend "The Orphan Master's Son."
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (3 of 6 readers found this comment helpful)
Coni, August 16, 2013 (view all comments by Coni)
I was interested in this book since it was about a country that I don’t know much about, North Korea. Unfortunately, the author tried but doesn’t know as much as he wishes he did and that comes through. I couldn’t trust what I was reading most of the time since what he was describing could have been rumors instead of based on stories told from defectors. I think this story would have been more useful if it wasn’t set in an actual country, but a fictional one that readers could understand was like North Korea.
My main problem with the book was the lack of believable characters. The main character is never really fleshed out. He just has things happen to him, but his thought process isn’t really shared with the reader. The same thing happens with some other characters in the book. Actually, I felt like I did get to know an interrogator that appears halfway through the book in how he relates to his family. I found it odd that I felt more for one of the minor characters compared to the main one in the story. I also found it silly to have Kim Jong Il as a character in the story.
The characters seemed to be there just to drive the plot, which gets more and more outlandish. It starts off with the main character living in an orphanage, describing the horrors of what happens to the orphans. Then it skips to him being already trained as a kidnapper. I thought that would have been interesting to read about, but instead I got to spend many pages reading about him transcribing on a boat. It was the long boring passages like that where I wanted to give up, but forced myself to continue. Halfway through, the story changes. I had hope! I actually enjoyed the propaganda chapters about what the citizens would hear on the loudspeakers. It was all so ridiculous and gave more insight into North Korea than anything else that I read, especially when compared to what was actually happening in the plot. Still, the second half of the book lost me with boredom again. As it went forward and backward in time, telling us the end of the story or hinting at it enough that by the time we read how it actually happened, it seemed repetitive. I kept waiting for some big reveal at the end to make it worth my effort of finishing it, but there was none.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (4 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)
The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea
0 stars -
Random House -
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"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.
by Abraham Verghese,
"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."
by Booklist (Starred review),
"[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."
by Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad,
"Impossible to forget...Adam Johnson unleashes a big, thrilling, and fully realized talent."
by The New Yorker,
"Remarkable...Johnson’s heroes are isolated and alienated, but are capable of feeling just the right emotion at just the right time."
by The Washington Post,
"[Johnson’s] characters are wonderfully weird and charming, and he is so witty a storyteller that this strange novel manages to captivate."
by Seattle Weekly,
"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."
by David Mitchell,
"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."
by Charles Bock,
"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."
by Library Journal (Starred review),
"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."
"[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.'"
by O Magazine,
"Ambitious, violent, audacious — and stunningly good."
"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."
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.