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Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son

June 12, 2014

46. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

Length: 456 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Started: 25 May 2014
Finished: 31 May 2014

Where did it come from? Bought from Amazon.
Why do I have it? It was my book club’s pick this month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 April 2014.

In North Korea,
your story is whatever
the government says.

Summary: Jun Do grew up in an orphanage in North Korea, the son of a famous singer who left him to go to Pyongyang and a father who runs the orphanage. As part of the orphans’ work gang, Jun Do learns to fight in the tunnels, and then rises through the ranks to become a kidnapper, and ultimately learns English in order to intercept and interpret foreign radio broadcasts. Ultimately, in a strange twist of fate, Jun Do finds himself forced to on another man’s identity – and with it, his wife, the national actress Sun Moon. But surviving in the dictatorship of North Korea is a tricky business, when the government holds absolute authority over your life and death, and you must comply with the whims of those in charge or risk terrible punishments for yourself and those around you.

Review: This was very much not my usual fare, and I probably never would have picked it up if not for my book club (and really, isn’t that what book clubs are for?), but I wound up… not exactly enjoying it, but certainly finding it extremely interesting. Johnson paints a very vivid image of what life might be like for an average person inside North Korea, something I’d never really considered in any great detail before. (I say “might be like” rather than “is” because I’m still not entirely sure how much of this book is factual. Johnson has traveled in North Korea, albeit only with government-approved guides, and this book is based on that and on the tales of defectors… but I’m unsure how much his Western perspective really colored the story. I guess we’ll have to wait until we start getting novels by North Korean novelists in order to find out for sure.) I think when we hear stories out of North Korea, we tend to think things like “how can people live like that? Don’t they know any better?”, and this book was an interesting explanation of how – and why – people live in these kind of totalitarian dictatorships, and how they retain some semblance of humanity and identity – or not. Fascinating stuff to think about.

The story itself was… odd. It was hard to really get to know Jun Do, much less any of the other characters, but that’s sort of the point: he’s our everyman, our John Doe, and he’s not in a situation that’s conducive to individuality or self-expression. The story was also really episodic – he’s an orphan, he’s a kidnapper, he’s on a fishing boat, he’s in Texas, he’s in prison, he’s impersonating a military commander. Part of that was also surely intentional, to point up the arbitrariness of the rules under which he exists, but there were some transitional steps, particularly early on (the tunnels and the language school, in particular), that were glossed over or only mentioned in passing, which made the beginning a little uneven and difficult to follow. All of the arbitrariness also had the effect of making some parts seem almost farcical – and I did find this book quite funny in places, in a very black humor kind of way – but there’s always this awful undercurrent of paranoia and very real danger running under everything that makes things less amusing and more tense and distressing. So, overall, while I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed this book, it was definitely a worthwhile read, a glimpse into a world we don’t normally get to see, and one filled with some really vivid imagery that I think will stick with me for a long time. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like books that give you a doorway into someone else’s life, someone else’s world, that is nothing at all like your life or your world, this should definitely be on your list.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Booklover Book Reviews, Devourer of Books, Farm Lane Books Blog, Leeswammes’ Blog, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Citizens, gather ’round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 4: “So return to your industrial lathes and vinalon looms, citizens, and double your output quotas as you listen to this Lovely Visitor sing the story of the greatest nation in the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” – a synthetic fiber produced from polyvinyl alcohol.
  • p. 125: ““Then treat him as you would any visiting Juche scholar from foreign lands like Burma or Ukraine or Cuba.”” – a political thesis formed by Kim Il-sung that states that the Korean masses are the masters of the country’s development.
  • p. 145: ““You don’t know how it sorrows me to hear that,” she said, then went to the door, where a white guayabera hung.” – A light open-necked cotton shirt, often with large pockets and pleats down the front, that is typically worn outside the pants.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2014 11:30 am

    It does sound like it would be interested.

  2. June 12, 2014 3:40 pm

    I do like to explore other worlds through books. How did the rest of your book club react to it?

  3. June 13, 2014 4:45 am

    I agree – this is a story that stays with you long after reading.

    PS: Thanks for the link!

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