Reviews for Orphan Master's Son

Booklist Reviews 2011 December #1
*Starred Review* Pak Jun Do lives with his father at a North Korean work camp for orphans. In a nation in which every citizen serves the state, orphans routinely get the most dangerous jobs. So it is for Jun Do, who becomes a "tunnel soldier," trained to fight in complete darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ. But he is reassigned as a kidnapper, snatching Japanese citizens with special skills, such as a particular opera singer or sushi chef. Failure as a kidnapper could lead directly to the prison mines. But in Johnson's fantastical, careening tale, Jun Do manages to impersonate Commander Ga, the country's greatest military hero, rival of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and husband of Sun Moon, North Korea's only movie star. Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief. As Jun Do, speaking as Ga, puts it, "people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them." Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Descriptions of everyday privations and barbarities are matter of fact, and Jun Do's love for Sun Moon reads like a fairy tale. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 January
Pulling back the curtain on North Korea

Adam Johnson’s five North Korean minders didn’t know what to make of him. They took him to the national museum in Pyongyang to show him room after room of paintings whose only subject matter was the glorification of Korea’s ruling family, the Kims. But Johnson wanted to know where the fire stations were.

Later an assistant minder tried to tell Johnson about the Dear Leader’s (Kim Jong Il) thoughts on terrorism. But Johnson wanted to know why he didn’t see any mailboxes. How did people get their mail? Why was there no one in a wheelchair in the capital? Weren’t there any handicapped people in North Korea?

“It’s so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn’t dare to look at me.”

“I asked all these verisimilitude questions that I don’t think anyone had ever asked them before,” Johnson says, recounting his strange, darkly funny experiences during a five-day visit to North Korea in August 2007. 

Johnson had gone to North Korea—no easy task for an American—about halfway through his seven-year effort to complete his spellbinding new novel The Orphan Master’s Son. Part thriller, part love story, part tale of daring impersonation, part wrenching examination of repression and its toll on human nature, the novel is set in North Korea (with a side trip to Texas).

“Most of the nonfiction about North Korea I found was about nuclear policy, economic theory or military history instead of human issues,” says Johnson, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, the writer Stephanie Harrell, and their children, ages 9, 7 and 5, and teaches in the creative writing program at Stanford University. “The more I looked to find what human life might be like there, the more elusive it became and the more I felt this was important to know. I can’t say I’m a big do-gooder. I wrote the book as an imaginative work for my own reasons. But I did feel I needed to go see the place to understand it.”

But, as Johnson learned, it is illegal for an unauthorized North Korean to talk to a foreigner, a crime that would likely land the perpetrator in Korea’s gulag. “You’d walk down the street in throngs of thousands and thousands of people. I’m six foot four and a half and 280 pounds. I’m a big guy. And these people weigh like 130 pounds. There are four shoe styles for men in North Korea; there’s one shade of lipstick for women; it’s so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn’t dare to look at me. It was a risk. So it was really clear that not a single spontaneous thing could happen there. It was just too dangerous to look at the strangest human you’d ever seen.”

Johnson manages to embed this sense of fear within the personal relationships of many of his characters. “The idea of what it would be like for a character to live under that fascinated me,” Johnson says. “I am a person who loves narrative, who teaches narrative theory. In our stories in the West we believe every character is the center of his or her own story. We believe every human is unique and valuable, has yearnings and desires. 

“But in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . .  You have to relinquish your own personal desires.”

The Orphan Master’s Son unfolds in two parts. In the first, we -follow the travails of Pak Jun Do, who is born among orphans, the country’s most expendable creatures. As Johnson says, “Jun Do hews to the national script,” first assigned to live in the ever-dark incursion tunnels dug beneath the border with South Korea, then tapped for kidnapping expeditions to Japan, then to serve as an English translator at a listening post aboard a vessel disguised as a fishing boat, where he “begins to become his own character,” and in so doing runs afoul of the authorities and ends up in a Korean gulag working in the mines.   

In part two, set a year after Jun Do disappears into the mines, we take up the story of Commander Ga, head of the nation’s mining operations and erstwhile friend of leader Kim Jong Il. One of Johnson’s most audacious acts of storytelling is to make the Dear Leader a central character in the book. “I felt I had to get the scriptwriter. There was a character who was making the entire reality of the world for these people, and I had to go take a look at him.” 

A number of the events described in the novel are clearly inspired by true-life incidents. And Johnson jokes that he actually had to leave out some of the wackier actions of Kim Jong Il because they would have interfered with his novel’s essential believability. But the dazzling virtuosity of Johnson’s storytelling makes The Orphan Master’s Son a work of far greater depth and range than a fictionalized panorama of life under the most repressive regime on Earth. 

Part two, for example, is told in an astonishing medley of voices and tonalities, ranging from a standard third-person point of view, to the chilling but also creepily comic voice of Propaganda, to a first-person account from a state interrogator, all while the narrative swirls backward and forward in time. There are rapturous descriptions of the sea at night. There is the often-funny inverted dialogue of interrogators and their prey. And there are moving passages about the human need for intimacy, which in this society can be a revolutionary act.

Johnson, the author of the short story collection Emporium and one previous novel, Parasites Like Us, says dealing with this challenging subject forced him to grow as a writer. “My tradition is formal realism, but in North Korea what is real is in question. So I couldn’t try to cram this story into ways I was familiar with. Things that I had taken for granted about how characters work, stories unfold, and how plot, momentum, pacing, tension and withholding work had to be different here. I was really open to taking risks, trying new things.” 

He adds, “I didn’t set out to write a big North Korea book. I was very curious about this place where all the rules of storytelling seemed different. It made me write a very different book than I have written before. And in the end I feel like I got a pretty good book out of it.”

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 January #1
Note to self: Do not schedule a vacation in North Korea, at least not without an escape plan. The protagonist of Johnson's (Parasites Like Us, 2003, etc.) darkly satisfying if somewhat self-indulgent novel is Pak Jun Do, the conflicted son of a singer. He knows no more, for "That was all Jun Do's father, the Orphan Master, would say about her." The Orphan Master runs an orphanage, but David Copperfield this ain't: Jun Do may have been the only non-orphan in the place, but that doesn't keep his father, a man of influence, from mistreating him as merrily as if he weren't one of his own flesh and blood. For this is the land of Kim Jong Il, the unhappy Potemkin Village land of North Korea, where even Josef Stalin would have looked around and thought the whole business excessive. Johnson's tale hits the ground running, and fast: Jun Do is recruited into a unit that specializes in kidnapping Koreans, and even non-Koreans, living outside the magic kingdom: doctors, film directors, even the Dear Leader's personal sushi chef. "There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he'd forever be nowhere." So ponders Jun Do, who, specializing in crossing the waters to Japan, sneaking out of tunnels and otherwise working his ghostlike wonders, rises up quickly in the state apparatus, only to fall after a bungled diplomatic trip to the United States. Johnson sets off in the land of John le Carr, but by the time Jun Do lands in Texas we're in a Pynchonesque territory of impossibilities, and by the time he's in the pokey we're in a subplot worthy of Akutagawa. Suffice it to say that Jun Do switches identities, at which point thriller becomes picaresque satire and rifles through a few other genres, shifting narrators, losing and regaining focus and point of view. The reader will have to grant the author room to accommodate the show-offishness, which seems to say, with the rest of the book, that in a world run by a Munchkin overlord like Kim, nothing can be too surreal. Indeed, once Fearless Leader speaks, he's a model of weird clarity: "But let's speak of our shared status as nuclear nations another time. Now let's have some blues." Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach. When it's made into a film, bet that Kim Jong Il will want to score an early bootleg. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 August #1

Here's a chance to visit sealed-off North Korea. Johnson's protagonist is an orphan who starts out as a tunnel soldier and rises through the military ranks until he's set to challenge Kim Jong-Il himself. Along the way, we encounter what one character calls "the greatest North Korean love story ever told." Evidently a blend of personal story and political revelation, with thriller overtones thrown in for fun, this work is being positioned as a breakout for Johnson. The first two serials go to Granta in August 2011 and Playboy in January 2012, which certainly suggests broad appeal.

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Library Journal Reviews 2011 November #1

Imagine a society in which the official political story tells only of happiness and prosperity, yet personal experience reveals the opposite. Imagine the resulting internal dissonance and the ways in which people might reconcile such opposing forces. This is the experience offered by Johnson (Parasites Like Us) in his novel of modern-day North Korea. Following the path of the hero's journey, young Pak Jun Do moves from an orphanage into a life of espionage, kidnapping, and torture, only to be given a new identity as the husband of the Dear Leader's favorite actress. With references to the classic American film Casablanca, Johnson's narrative portrays his hero as he makes his way through a minefield of corruption and violence, eventually giving his all so that his loved ones might have a better life. VERDICT Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 8/15/11.]--Susanne Wells, M.L.S., Indianapolis

[Page 72]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 October #4

Johnson's novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment--or worse--but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book's most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: "...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands." In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson (Parasites Like Us) juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope. (Jan.)

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