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
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?
2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself in the book?
3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?
4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?
5. Discuss the differences between the first part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”
6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?
7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?
8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?
9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?
10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?
11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.
12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.
13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?
14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?