Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
January 23, 2013 26 Comments
This book has been highly recommended all around me, and especially by people whose reading taste I share. Almost without fail, they loved this book. I wasn’t sure about the story, but I bought the book because of the recommendations. My copy is a beautiful Dutch hardback with a serious but friendly looking female soldier on the cover (see below). Usually, a beautiful book influences my reading experience in a positive way.
Unfortunately, I should have listened to my intuition and not other people’s recommendation: this book was not for me. Some of it I loved, but mostly I found it boring. Yes, I know. Some of you will not understand how that is possible. And I don’t understand why so many people speak so highly of the book. What is it about it that they love?
The Orphan Master’s Son: What it is about
From the publishers (US): “Pak 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 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 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.”
In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.”
The Orphan Master’s Son: What I thought
This book starts with the story of Pak Jun Do and gives the reader insight into a world we don’t know much about, North Korea. Things are rather different there, and life is hard. I enjoyed this part of the book. Jun Do becomes a kidnapper, stealing people from the Japanese coast, and later is part of a diplomatic delegation to America. That all was good fun.
My problems really started with the second part of the book: Commander Ga’s life and marriage. A lot of this was totally boring to me. The story was told by an interrogator and by loudspeakers that are part of every North Korean apartment block and work place. I did not like all the to-do between Ga and his wife, the singer and actress Sun Moon. There didn’t seem to be any progress in that part of the story and I found myself skimming pages.
While some of the story of the interrogator was interesting (for instance, his descriptions of his working days, and the story of his parents) I found myself mixing up the interrogator and Ga every now and then and had to remind myself who was who. Finally, I didn’t like being told a large part of the story via the loudspeakers. It was not the only surreal element of the story but to me, this way of telling the story was just not believable.
Besides the first part of the book, I really liked finding out about this very secretive country and especially, the inhabitants’ ideas about what seemed to be their major opponent, America. They were appalled that in America people have to find their own food, for example, while the lucky North Koreans have food vouchers to buy food with (via the ubiquitous loudspeakers, the government spoke ill of America all the time). The preparation of the return visit of the Americans to North Korea was fun too. For some reason, the Koreans wanted to recreate most of the experience they had had when visiting America so they could not be faulted on their hospitality.
I also liked the information that Adam Johson gives in an interview at the back of my copy about how the book came into being, his research and visit to the country.
But overall, too often I was bored with the story and I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as other people have done.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Number of pages: 488
First published: 2011
I got this book: bought it
Genre: contemporary fiction
Have you read this book?
What did you think?