Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam JohnsonThis 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

Gestolen leven by Adam Johnson


Have you read this book?

What did you think?



About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

26 Responses to Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

  1. I have this one waiting on my e-reader, because I heard so much good about it, Judith. I hope I will like it better than you did. 🙂

  2. Shame you didn’t enjoy this as much as I did, but can understand it is not to everyone’s tastes. I listened to the audiobook version which really helped distinguish between the characters and emphasize the dark humour of the loudspeaker voice.

  3. PS: I travelled in China in the mid 1990s so I found the loudspeaker propaganda element quite believable 😉

    • Leeswammes says:

      Jo, I do believe that they have the loudspeaker propaganda. I just doubt that they would present a story in several instalments via loudspeakers. Maybe they do, but it was one step too far for me.

  4. Don’t worry – you’re not alone! I didn’t enjoy this book either! It sounds as though we had almost identical reactions to this one. I also loved that first section and hated the second – I was bored, frustrated and fed up with the unrealistic tone of it. In a way I’m pleased you didn’t enjoy this – it is reassuring to know how close our reading tastes are 🙂

  5. therelentlessreader says:

    Too bad that you didn’t like this one more but that’s the great thing about the world right? We all have different tastes. I happened to really enjoy this book 🙂

  6. JENNIFER says:

    So nice to see this kind of review. I could not get through this book and it ended up on my DNF pile. I tried really hard based on all the great reviews I have read about this book. But, I made myself a rule this year to not push myself to finish a book I do not like. I have heard many good things about Nothing to Envy – re: North Korea. I might try this one instead.

    • Leeswammes says:

      I almost didn’t finish this either, Jennifer. I asked Twitter whether I should and several people said CONTINUE READING!!!! So, what could I do, but continue reading? 🙂 It wasn’t a waste of time, I learned some new things, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Maybe Nothing to Envy is better.

  7. Charlie says:

    I’m supposing the idea of this story is to show the politics, and from what you’ve said it sounds like it could succeed (“could” because I’ve not read it), but I think I understand your dislike of the loudspeaker. I wonder though, if perhaps you were *meant* to dislike that, because it does sound a strange way to narrate otherwise. I guess it depends on the ending and what gets resolved.

    • Leeswammes says:

      There were a lot of interesting things in the book, Charlie. But for me, there was a lot of boring stuff too. I was wondering too, whether I was supposed to dislike the loudspeaker, but that never became clear.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I was thinking of reading it, but your review has led me to believe it won’t be worth it.

    Thanks to everyone else too for your comments.


  9. Marie says:

    I haven’t heard of this one but based on the synopsis it doesn’t sound like it’s for me. But I hate it when it feels like you’re the only one that hasn’t fallen in love with a particular book! It’s so frustrating, to feel that there must be something you’ve missed.

  10. Athira says:

    Sometimes, I’ve been intrigued by this book and other times, not so much. I guess that matches your reaction to the book also. 😀

  11. Pingback: The Orphan Master’s Son | Care's Online Book Club

  12. Care says:

    Aw, a lot of people I know and respect are not liking this book. I chose it for me ‘serious’ book club, but one has abandoned it and another is struggling. I myself found it fascinating and endearing, in a way. I was enthralled. “Different strokes for different folks.”
    I like that you and I agree on some and disagree on other books. 🙂

  13. Pingback: Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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