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Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Title: The Orphan Master's Son

Author: Adam Johnson
Year published: 2012
Category: Adult fiction
Pages: 442 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2023 Google Reading map): North Korea, US (TX) 

SummaryPak 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 North Korean 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 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.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.

Review: This book took me far too long to read (I mean, weeks) but that isn't a comment on the book. I was so stressed and busy with my new job that I had no time to read.

This novel own the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 and I can see why. It is a complex look at life in North Korea through one man's experiences, is a study on humanity, and it is well written. It deals with themes of identity, propaganda, and the power of North Korean leadership.

In amongst the seriousness of this novel are moments of levity, which I appreciated. The trip Jun Do takes to Texas and his interactions with a US Senator on a ranch and getting the face of a famous woman tattooed on his chest were both interesting looks into culture and fun to read. The entire novel gives us a glimpse into the ultra-controlled environment of North Korea and the lies/fictions its citizens tell to stay safe and to help themselves get through the day.

I have read a number of books set in North Korea (The Girl with Seven Names, Escape from Camp 14, Without You There is no Us, Pyongyang, Nothing to Envy, and Brother's Keeper)and while this one is m favorite of the bunch, it is really well done.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Literary Escapes--North Korea

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