Orphan Master's Son (Review)

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The Orphan Master's Son
Adam Johnson, 2012
464 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May, 2012

Life inside North Korea—despite satellite technology, defector memoirs, and occasional state visits—remains shrouded in mystery. This is the world Adam Johnson's brilliant novel seeks to penetrate: North Korea in its surreal brutality.

Pak Jun Do begins life in an orphanage where children are left not just parentless but nameless, remaining outcasts for the rest of their lives. Jun Do is convinced he is different, that he has special status as the son of the Orphan Master, though we are left to think differently.

We follow Jun Do, likable and handsome, through his many exploits as an adult—he becomes a tunnel fighter in the DMZ, kidnapper, radio operator, English translator, and national hero. Through it all he hones the technique of survival in a hyper-repressive society. But survival comes with a price: the denial of intimacy, what Jun Do has craved since childhood. In a job as a ship radio operator, which becomes a powerful metaphor for his loneliness, he finds himself...

utterly alone upon the waters, completely cut off from everyone, no friends, no family, no direction, nothing but a radio for solace.

"Come in off the water," a young woman later pleads with him. "You don't need a radio. I'm right here."

Johnson has created a riveting novel—escape thriller, romance, and quest story. It is also a story about telling stories, how we use stories to define us and the world around us. The stories take different forms—state propaganda, folk legends, prison biographies, lies told in order to survive, and lies told to hide us from our own selves. Even an American quilt on a trip to Texas becomes a story.

Johnson seems to be asking, what constitutes identity? Are North Koreans—are all of us—the sum of our stories? And whose stories—the ones we tell ourselves or the ones told about us? Finally, if our identity is made up of nothing but stories, can intimacy ever be possible?

The Orphan Master's Son is a stunning portrait of an elusive society, the resiliency of its people, and the sacrifices they make to survive. In turn, harrowing, tender, even funny, it's a book to dig into.

See our Reading Guide for The Orphan Master's Son.

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