The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Author: Adam Johnson
Genre: Fiction (North Korea / Kidnapping / Propaganda / Military Dictatorship / Romance / Impersonation)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House Trade Paperbacks (8/7/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked to love.
Did I finish?: I did -- I couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: The story of a Korean man -- a model citizen -- who goes from kidnapper for the state to traitor when he falls in love.
Reading Challenges: E-books, NetGalley
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- I love seeing the male figure on the cover (he's kind of cute!, sorry to objectify), and the box-in-a-box image with, I presume, Pyongyang at the bottom. Very eye-catching.
First line: Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like dark, ironic, lovely stories of love, loss, national identity, and violence.
Why did I get this book?: The unusual setting and the fact that I was struck by the hardcover design.
Review: From the first page of this incredible book, I was sucked in, and a bit like rubber-necking a car accident, no matter how awful the story got, I couldn't stop. It's hard to say one likes a novel like this -- its unrelenting in depicting torture, pain, unhappiness, deprivation -- and yet, I couldn't stop reading this book and I couldn't put it down. I found Jun Do to be a wonderful protagonist, despite his flaws and the horrifying things he did, and I had to finish the story.
There's a sort of ludicrousness to the plot -- when I recounted it to my wife, I found myself couching each plot change with a 'it works, really!' because saying it aloud, it does sound silly so much happens to one person -- but I think it works as it echoes the ludicrousness of North Korea: the heroic operas, the heroic national narrative, the horrible fantasy-land where kidnapped people become happy residents.
I can't decide what was more central to the story for me: the writing style or the characters. Johnson uses an arch, comedic tone in some passages, as he shares the national myth of what is happening in the story ('Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers! It is time for the final installment of this year's Best North Korean Story, though it might as well be titled the Greatest North Korean Story of All Time!') interspersed between following Jun Do or, as happens later in the book, Jun Do's interrogators. Jun Do was a wonderful character, a creature of his upbringing, brutally abused, surviving -- thriving! -- in a country of intense contradictions -- a contradiction himself. Even though he sees the grim reality of the regime, he is still won over by the fantasies spun.
I've read a ton of buzz about this novel, much of it praise for Johnson's articulation of North Korea, and certainly, he paints the picture of a place that is laughable and frightening. (I'm reminded of the 30 Rock episode where it comes out that Tracy Morgan's character starred in propaganda action films with Kim Jong Il -- hilarious and yet deeply depressing.) Not being an expert on North Korea, I can't say one way or the other whether it is true or not, but certainly, it sounded like what I've read about North Korea -- and offered me some uncomfortable comparisons with US national myth-making (while reading, I thought immediately of the Jason Bourne film franchise, our own assassins-with-hearts-of-gold).
At 480 pages, this is a hefty read, but I found the narrative was rather zippy. I've read some reviews that said the first half was hard to get into but I was immediately immersed (however uncomfortably) in the world Johnson created (in fact, the narrative transition in Part Two threw me for a loop to begin with but I eventually caught on). While this novel has a kind of nontraditional writing style, I think those who aren't wild about experimental fiction might dig this one because the juxtaposition of horror and fantasy makes both elements stand out. It's a book that makes one feel kind of artsy and brainy but isn't weighted down with philosophical ruminations or long dreamy sequences. At the heart of this book is a story of belonging, love, and sacrifice.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Orphan Master’s Son to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/24. For another entry, be sure to check out my interview with Adam Johnson.