Elizabeth K., Amigos Library Services (Dallas, TX)
Mysterious, compelling, frightening: North Korea
What happens when a country attempts to eliminate the individual and remold him or her into a nameless, faceless, interchangeable part of a bigger whole? No matter how oppressed, the human heart still yearns for love, for freedom, for something better than what it has. Adam Johnson writes as if he has lived the life he describes in this impressive, exhaustively-researched novel. This dense book explores the life of one man from his unbelievably harsh childhood to an even more difficult adulthood, emphasizing not just the physical pain, but the emotional and psychological scars of living in North Korea. This is a stunning book that should become required reading in college literature courses and for any American interested in learning more about North Korea.
Viqui G. (State College, PA)
The Orphan Master's Son
I was totally engrossed with this powerful novel by Adam Johnson. The book weaves an intricate story that depict a North Korean world that is extremely foreign to us. It was initially difficult to understand the mentality of the people living in this isolated country, however the author did an outstanding job of guiding the reader through the North Korean psyche. Their way of life and their system of government is so alien from ours that it was almost like reading about a science fictionalized community.
Pak Jun Do is the main character that survives despite many obstacles. The mental and physical torture that he endures would have destroyed many individuals. The author depicts his wit, his intellect and his mental toughness with great clarity.
This book will appeal to readers interested in a well paced novel of some complexity. There are many graphic scenes, so I don't recommend it to young people. However, it would definitely would appeal to readers that enjoy a challenging novel and enjoy immersing themselves in a well developed character.
Maggie P. (Mount Airy, MD)
A Different World
The Orphan Master's Son grabs you from the start. Transported to the world of North Korea, the reader is intrigued to see what Pak Jun Do encounters next. Both a love story and a thriller, this book keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
Deborah M. (Chambersburg, PA)
Takes Readers to a Place They've Never Been
Johnson takes us inside a country that most of us know little about: contemporary North Korea. We're all familiar with the soundbites from the news that describe a monomaniacal dictator who places personal power above the welfare of his people. But Johnson shows what it must be like to live--no, SURVIVE--within the justified paranoia engendered in such a place. The sweeping plot follows the titular protagonist, Jun Do, through his rise in the ranks by both dedication and devious means. It's a thriller, a mystery, a love story; there's something here for everyone. What will stay with me most after reading this novel is the sense of what it must be like to live with gut-wrenching fear on a day-to-day basis. To feel that no one can be trusted; to feel that you're constantly under scrutiny; to feel afraid to love, to hope, to dream--all of the things that make us human. This is a complex book, but one definitely worth the effort.
Betsey V. (Austin, TX)
A minefield of a fable, myth and realism combined
Adam Johnson writes with authority about the essentially unknown North Korean culture and civilization. Kim Jong Il's force-fed propaganda controls the people so consummately that their identities are squeezed from their minds and replaced with a state-sponsored life and perspective. The life of a North Korean is not the pursuit of happiness or self-actualization. It is solely to survive, like an insect or a rodent. To live, you must become a shell, an unquestionably loyal nationalist.
What Johnson realizes so well in his debut novel are the conflicts, confrontations, and abysses between the self that has been annihilated and the social structure that replaces the self. Every word you utter is weighed, and could be twisted as subversive. You are subjected to daily propaganda reports through loudspeakers connected to your house. People are traumatized from the cradle to the grave, and your individual thoughts are a threat to your security and safety. You are raised to be a complete subject of the state, and to wear the skin of trauma that is inflicted daily.
Jun Do is a survivor of famine and abandonment. His father ran an orphanage, and Jun Do was expected to impersonate an orphan from an early age. His strength, talents, and stamina lead him along an epic path. From his high seas and espionage adventures on a fishing vessel, where he develops his first chosen father-son emotional relationship, to the deprivations and torture of the prison mines, to the corrupt corridors of power, where his skill of impersonation becomes his sword and precarious shield, Jun Do's life literally morphs into a fabled one. He learns to act alone, and yet to connect with the hearts of others.
"Today, tomorrow...A day is nothing. A day is just a match you strike after the ten thousand matches before it have gone out," says the tragic, beautifully wounded actress, Sun Moon, who has made persona an art, and who once captured the hearts of all the citizens, including her husband, Commander Ga. Jun Do's transformations, internal and external, bring him squarely into the receptacles of Commander Ga, Sun Moon, and the "Dear Leader" himself.
This postmodern novel is told via stunning juxtapositions, between the controllers and subjects of a treacherous society and the inner will of the individual. The historical context is authentic, complex, layered, and detailed. Chapters alternate between Jun Do and a nameless interrogator, which progress to an operatic denouement. This isn't the kind of novel that grabs you immediately; there are many ambiguities and inchoate events that build gradually, stone by stone, erecting an explosive story that tunnels through the doom of a raw reality, to a bloodletting myth, and into the chambers of a sequestered heart.
Shirley D. (Amherst, MA)
I didn’t know much about North Korea and I’m not sure I want to know any more. The Orphan Master’s Son is so brilliantly written, I found myself immediately involved in the lives of the of the characters. I’m glad I read it but wish I hadn’t felt so personally involved – no objectivity here. The writing captured me completely and I could read just so much at a time. I am conflicted. I have to say it is a wonderful/awful book and I’ll never in the future hear the words “North Korea” without a personal connection..
John W. (Clayton, Missouri)
Vivid view into life in North Korea
"The Orphan Master's Son" is an impressive novel about a man called Pak Jun Do's journey from childhood to manhood in a country, North Korea, where little is known about daily life. The story follows Pak Jun Do departure from the orphanage to life as a tunnel soldier, a professional kidnapper, language student, radio operator on a fishing vessel, a hero who visits Texas on a government mission, and then a prisoner. The writer describes in detail how the totalitarian regime operates enabling the reader to understand how people submit to its relentless propaganda and repression. Several times in the book the North Koreans express concern and horror that people in the U.S. must pay for everything. Rather than view freedom of a positive it’s viewed as a negative that people don’t have the protection and safety that comes from a government that dictates every aspect of their lives. Jun Do says he doesn't think he could ever feel free in the US; that everything in North Korea makes clear sense and it's the most straightforward place on earth.
I highly recommend this book to readers that like reading about life in other cultures. It is a wide ride of emotions with periods of very disturbing descriptions of the cruelty, courage and love. Prepare yourself for a slow read - it contains very detailed description of events and the book can be confusing at time as narrator changes and it jumps from one time period to another.