The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

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The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This is a journey through the life of North Korean Jun Do whilst he battles for survival against a faceless, illogical state. This is an amazing novel that will take you to a little known country and leave you a lot more knowledgeable and a little emotionally roller-coastered.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0857520555

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Winner: Pullitzer Prize for Fiction 2013

The Orphan Master's Son follows the adventures of Jun Do who has been born without any say in his future. For this is North Korea, where all is organised for the good of the state or at the whim of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

Jun Do starts his adult life as a member of a state-sanctioned kidnap squad before joining a fishing boat as a 'listener', basically a spy monitoring and translating foreign radio traffic. His troubles start when he discovers that being a good citizen isn't enough and sometimes a person needs something else to believe in and fight for.

This is an incredibly hard book to sum up, but I also realise this will be an awfully short review if I don't try, so here goes...

To begin with The Orphan Master's Son seems to be one of those novels aimed at worthy, wordy, literary awards. This doesn't last long though – once the book grabbed me it wouldn't let go. I found myself caring deeply about Jun Do, the man whose very name is a pun on the American phrase (John Doe, meaning a male without an identity). He's an ordinary man trapped in an extraordinary system, just wanting to do the right thing, initially for the state and then for his conscience. He is joined by a wonderfully ensemble character list. Even the less important characters are well drawn and come alive on the page: the Captain of the trawler who just wanted to do the best for his men and who initiated Jun Do's chest tattoo (a big plot moment so enough said), Dr Song, the North Korean 'diplomat' who couldn't really count diplomacy as one of his gifts, Wanda the kindly US agent... the list goes on.

This is a novel that refuses to be pigeon-holed. It's laugh-out-loud funny, it's romantic (in a gritty non-Mills and Boone sort of way) but the deeper it goes, the darker it gets. Along with the humorous highs, Adam Johnson plumbs the depths of despair and hopelessness to such a degree that when I first started reading I thought it a caricature. It seemed as if he was taking the subject matter to extremes for effect. However, having read more about North Korea and some of the interviews the author gave, the facts aren't blown out of proportion at all. This is one case where fact is indeed stranger than any fiction. For instance, Fact No 1: Kim Jong Il kidnapped a South Korean film star and her husband, holding them till they agreed to take part in a propaganda film. Fact No 2: There is a work camp in North Korea to which entire families (parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc) are sent to disappear; no one hears about them ever again. There is no comfort in the realisation that death camps didn't die with the Nazis.

You'll remember the moments of mind-numbing sadness long after you've finished reading, but you'll also still find yourself chuckling at vignettes like the girl who was thrown off the pier (funnier than it sounds – trust me) or the North Korean lecture on Americans and their customs. This is an epic adventure, shedding light on a land that's been just a blob on the map with a rather odd leader for too long. Perhaps now, after the demise of Kim Jong Il there will be more hope or, unfortunately, perhaps not.

I'm grateful to Doubleday for giving The Bookbag a copy to review.

If you'd like to learn a little more about North Korea, try the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle or if you'd prefer something less pictorial, perhaps This Is Paradise by Hyok Kang.

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