I picked up this book because of its high ratings and Pulitzer Prize (2013) status. It’s been hailed by many critics as a ‘tour de force,’ and I can’t argue. It’s epic in scope, content, and literary genius -- I was mesmerized and astounded in turn with Adam Johnson’s brilliant and insightful writing.
However (and this could be a game changer for some), I wasn’t prepared for the emotional, gut-wrenching ‘tour de force’ the novel delivers by frequently and graphically describing human suffering, violence and torture. I came very close to abandoning the book altogether.
But in the end, it was that very human suffering that compelled me to finish. Pak Jun Do’s story, combined with the larger story of North Korea, are essentially about humanity. And lack thereof.
Taking away someone’s humanity, giving it back; giving away one’s own humanity, getting it back. And how love can be used for both.
'The Orphan Master's Son' can be a life-changer. It’s that good. But I’m giving it 4 stars (instead of 5) because it’s not worth reading unless you’re absolutely sure you have a strong stomach.
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.
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.