An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.I picked up this book as my second book of the year because the location of North Korea seemed very timely with the recent passing of Kim Jong Il. At first I wasn't sure what time period this book was set in, but during the visit to Texas one of the characters mentioned "the hurricane" which I took to reference Hurricane Katrina and placed this book in modern day.
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean 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. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
Both Pak Jun Do and Sun Moon were likeable characters and I found myself cheering them on as they explored their relationship. Pak Jun Do was able to adapt to any situation put before him, which really was an asset for him. Sun Moon was portrayed like any modern diva/actress, but it was nice to see her relax and enjoy moments with her children. The description of the US delegation and how they put on a show for the North Koreans was an interesting take of taking an outsider's view of our culture.
I like the setup of the book and the plot moved forward and back at the right tempo. The one subplot that I could have lived without was the integrator/biography collector and his parents. It does seem a little surreal that an average citizen could take the place of a high ranking general within North Korea. But this idea of who the leader of a country - such as North Korea - surrounds themselves with is no different than an American President picking friends and past colleagues for high ranking jobs in their cabinet and/or government agencies.
Even though the last 40-50 pages resolved to a predictable ending, I was still riveted in my seat to know how everything worked out. This book is a great read and definitely one that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I'm looking forward to hearing Adam Johnson speak at my local indie bookstore later in the month. Also he was interviewed on Weekend Edition Sunday this past weekend.