The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
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.”
Review: Pak Jun Do is an almost-orphan living in North Korea. His ability to shift his identity to conform to the unpredictable whims of the Korean government helps him stay alive, but there is only so much that one person can take. When Jun Do’s family is put in danger, he risks his life to help them escape.
This book is beautifully written and difficult to read. Much of the story takes place in camps where prisoners are tortured and worked to death. The author doesn’t shy away from grim subjects. This is one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a long time. Some parts of it are so realistic that it doesn’t feel like fiction.
The best part of this novel (aside from the writing) is the contrast between the government’s ridiculous propaganda and Jun Do’s struggle to survive. The reader is never quite sure what’s real because some of the characters try to put a positive spin on horrific situations. The blend of humor and horror is surreal.
Even though I can see why this book won a Pulitzer Prize, I had a difficult time getting through it. The story feels convoluted in places. There is a lot of stuff going on, and it’s sometimes slow or confusing. There were also sections where I was so bored that I found excuses not to read the book. I had to force myself to keep picking it up, especially in the beginning.
Overall, I liked the book for its writing and realism, but it wasn’t an easy (or pleasant) read. I’d recommend The Orphan Master’s Son to anybody who is interested in North Korea and isn’t afraid of dark stories.