BookBrowse Reviews The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

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The Orphan Master's Son

A Novel

by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson X
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2012, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 480 pages

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A story of cruelty, innocence lost, camaraderie and love, set in North Korea

Adam Johnson's somber yet highly praised novel, The Orphan Master's Son, has inspired enthusiastic responses from BookBrowse readers. 28 out of 32 reviewers rate it 4 or 5 stars. Here's what they have to say:

"Citizens, gather round your loudspeakers..." What a beginning to an absolutely fascinating story! Imagine having an announcement every morning, in your home, office... giving you the day's news, recipes, stories, and a constant barrage of propaganda that molds your thoughts until there is no individual, just a human extension of the government (Annie P). This is not typically the type of book I would select; however, its unique setting, the original story line and the excellent writing make this a title that I am very glad I read. I would tell readers to be patient as they navigate through the characters and premise because it's a book they will love and remember (Betsy R). Part adventure thriller, part real-life dystopia documentary, part creative fiction, Adam Johnson searingly paints a portrait of a culture where the individual is erased and the collective is all that matters. Filled with twists and turns and exposure of the dark realities of life in North Korea (kidnapping of innocents, repression and propaganda), this is truly an imaginative feat (Jill S).

Some readers enjoyed learning about North Korea's culture and political climate:
The Orphan Master's Son weaves an intricate story that depicts 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 (Viqui G). Johnson shows what it must be like to live - no, survive - with the justified paranoia engendered in such a place (Deborah M). I learned that the citizens deserve our sympathy... This is a very informative and well-written story (Steve B).

Others appreciated Johnson's close attention to historical detail:
The author's extensive research is apparent in every paragraph. He includes many actual events and weaves them in seamlessly with his fictional scenarios. The characters themselves are solid, believable, and you find yourself sympathizing with, for the most part, both the good guys and the bad - with one exception: the character of North Korea's 'Dear Leader' (Georganne F). The historical context is authentic, complex, layered, and detailed (Betsey V). Imagining the tale of an individual living under North Korea's dehumanized and repressive regime is a heroic undertaking, and the author's exhaustive background research for the book is masterly (Teresa R).

Nevertheless, some reviewers had a few quibbles with the book:
I had trouble throughout with the story's fragmented chronology, and several key plot elements seemed implausible to me (Teresa R). While the writing was excellent and the story fascinating and complicated, I wanted more characterization. I felt the story wasn't as powerful because the events of the story overshadowed the actual people experiencing them (Katherine Y).

But overall, the majority of readers found The Orphan Master's Son well worth the read:
This is a complex book, but one definitely worth the effort (Deborah M). Adam Johnson's view of life in North Korea is not for the faint of heart. Though fictional, it has the eerie sound of ultimate truth. This is a society without love, without hope, without any human emotion... Still it's a book worth reading (Sande O). The story haunts long after the last page (Linda N). This is an amazing novel; the tone of the book mirrors the society it describes. I found it difficult to read except in short doses because it reflects the oppressiveness of North Korea so accurately (Darlene C).

Who should read this book:
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 definitely would interest readers who enjoy a challenging novel and like immersing themselves in a well-developed character (Viqui G). I will recommend this book to my friends and my book club, as it has so many points of view to discuss (Nancy F).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2012, and has been updated for the August 2012 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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