3 April 2012

Review 25: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

"Citizens of our beloved Democratic Republic of North Korea! Imagine the life of an orphan boy who is plucked from nowhere to be trained as a tunnel assassin, a kidnapper, a spy. He has no father but the State, no sweetheart but Sun Moon, the greatest opera star who ever lived, whose face is tattooed on his chest. Imagine he lives in our very own country, a model of exemplary Communism. A nation that is the envy of the world, especially the Americans. Where the only stories people need to hear are those blasting from loudspeakers to the glory of our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Dry your eyes now, comrades! Prepare to hear the Greatest North Korean Love Story Ever Told. Warning: Any resemblance to real people and events may not be entirely coincidental."

Not due to any particular plan, I've read a lot of YA in 2012. I read a lot of YA generally what with being a school librarian and there being a lot of awesome YA around but normally I intersperse it with adult fiction more frequently than I have this year. The Orphan Master's Son is the first adult fiction I've read in a good few weeks and I really enjoyed getting involved something with a bit more depth and complexity with wonderful language as well as a superb plot.

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

The titular Orphan Master's Son is Pak Jun Do. His father runs a boys orphanage and is therefore treated as an orphan in a society where orphans are looked down on and pitied. As the orphan master's son, Jun Do gives all the boys the names of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution, naming himself after the martyr who committed suicide in order to prove his loyalty to North Korea. After the orphanage falls apart and he loses his father, Jun Do is sent to work as a tunnel rat where he becomes accustomed to working in complete darkness. He is then sent to learn English before being stationed on a fishing boat intercepting and translating radio signals. Whilst at sea he is tattooed with the face of Sun Moon, North Korea's national actress as all fishermen have their wives tattooed on their chests and Jun Do's lack of tattoo marks him out as suspicious. After a run-in with an American boat, a shark attack and a defection, Jun Do ends up on a mission to American to meet a Senator as a translator where the first shards of doubt as to who is really free cross his mind. After the trip takes a turn for the disastrous, Jun Do finds himself incarcerated in a prison camp on his return to North Korea and the first half of our story ends when Commander Ga, Kim Jong Il's second in command and husband of Sun Moon, comes to inspect his prison camp.

The second half of the story includes more of Commander Ga and Sun Moon, surreal and chilling meetings with Kim Jong Il, an interrogator, an unexpected romance and some really excellent storytelling. To say more than this about the actual plot of the novel would spoil the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself and finding out what happens to Jun Do. Johnson weaves his story carefully yet audaciously, pulling together characters real and fictitious in situations based in reality and yet heightened by fiction. I was somewhat awestruck at times by the story that Johnson was telling, it is unique both in topic and tone. Jun Do is a hero that comes from being a blank cipher to the things going around him to a man you are really rooting for and Johnson pulls out the humanity of characters such as the interrogator, despite his job torturing citizens for fake confessions and accusations. There is a heartbreaking moment where the interrogator describes the way his father explained the way the world worked, "There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say but inside, we are still us, we are family."

Some reviews I have read have commented that they feel that Johnson is implying that everything he has written is based on hard facts and that this is somewhat deceptive. I didn't really see the section where Johnson makes any such claims and most of them seem to be based on the fact that he has talked about how much research he did and that he travelled in North Korea for a week. I don't really understand these criticisms as surely most authors do research even for the most fantastical of stories. Clearly the story is based around real elements of North Korea with plenty of fiction thrown in there as well to create his story. Whilst it definitely made me think twice about what goes on in North Korea, I certainly don't take everything that happens in the novel to be a claim that it really happens. Elements such as the portrayal of Kim Jong Il are clearly somewhat cartoonised, even if based in fact.

Having said that, there is certainly a sobering element to the novel as whilst no doubt some things have invented and exaggerated, what we do know about the prison camps in North Korea show that some of the really horrendous things that happen there really do happen. Johnson's story is bolstered by the recently released 'Escape from Camp 14', a real life story of an inmate who managed to escape to China and then the US. North Korea is notoriously private and it is fairly impossible to truly know what happens, and hopefully some of the truly awful things that take place in the novel, are entirely fictitious but it certainly raises awareness of the disregard to human rights that takes place there. It definitely made me want to find out more about the country's history and current situation.

On the flip side, parts of the story are suffused with joy and a sort of lightness of just being alive. There are big chunks of the novel that are full on adventure in tone with some notes of humour at some points. These parts intersperse the parts that are full of intolerable cruelty as well as a heartbreaking romance, although it is anything but a traditional love story. A lot of the beauty of the book comes from the spirit of Jun Do, a truly wonderful hero who you can't help but root for despite the awful decisions he is forced to make.

Ultimately, this is a superb novel. It is expertly put together with beautiful, inspiring writing, wonderful characters and plenty to make you think. It has politics, romance, action, drama all put together in a carefully and excellently crafted novel. It also has a beautiful hardback cover - it really is a lovely book to look at. I would highly recommend this novel.


  1. Nice review! I ended up reading this book right after it came out which just happened to coincide with the death of Kim Jong Il. I also got to hear Adam talk about his book. He did research North Korea a lot, but he remind us that it is a book of fiction and not much is known about the true conditions in North Korea.

  2. I am enjoying the book, Not finished yet, but the story keeps me coming back..

    I am telling all my friends to read it.