A book about North Korea is not an easy one to write. A territory which is closed to everyone and everything is quite enigmatic and yet inaccessible. Adam Johnson’s, “The Orphan Master’s Son” is a book set in modern day North Korea and epitomizes Orwellian Horror at its best. The book but obviously features the regime under, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong il. Now to tell you something more about the book.
Adam Johnson has immersed himself in whatever information was available about the country and in whatever form. The structure and plot of the story are a little difficult to get hang of, but once you have, then it is even more difficult to let go before finishing the book.
In the book, North Korea is a dreaded country. You can be condemned for the smallest of things and everything will go unnoticed. The person isn’t as important as the story of the person. Things change in an instant, basis public service announcements, telling people what to do and when.
The story is centered on the life of Jun Do, the son of an orphan master. He is named after one of the revolutionaries who committed suicide to prove his loyalty and worthiness to the revolution. Jun Do’s life is complex – from being treated as an orphan (when he is not) to becoming a tunnel soldier to transforming into a kidnapper, working in Japan to provide select individuals to serve the capital’s needs and desires. He is trained to become an English translator, conducting the work of surveillance spy, on a boat, where the men have their wives’ faces tattooed on their chests.
From here on his life changes drastically. He is given the opportunity to visit US of A. The visit is a humiliating experience for the country, due to which Jun Do is sent to prison. In prison, he kills and takes the place of one of the heroes, Commander Ga and falls in love with his wife, Son Moon, who is a famous movie star. The blurb says that it is, “The Greatest North Korean Love Story Ever Told” and it is correct. It is.
The book is divided into two parts. From the regime’s point of view and what goes on there, and but obviously from the protagonist’s point of view. There were times when I was lost in the narratives but then quickly found my way back in and continued reading.
The Orphan Master’s Son is set in a time which is very difficult for us to imagine and even think what it would be like for us to live in those conditions. The writing is vivid and real. The elements of longing, loss, acceptance and wanting to defy society come across beautifully.
Adam Johnson captures the political scenario brilliantly, though for me if a book has too much of politics in it, I tend to lose focus after a while. There is no defined style of writing in the book and that is refreshing. Totalitarianism is revealed in all its craziness – as to how people give in to repression and propaganda without thought. The setting, North Korea is described without any frills, the way it is meant to be depicted – straightforward.
Stories are disjointed in the book. It is mix of many genres – thriller, spy, romance, sea stories, historical fiction, and realism. The essence of the book is never lost though, which according to me is of identity. The Orphan Master’s Son is a great read. It is everything you possibly cannot imagine in a novel and are taken by surprise. I cannot wait to read the other two books written by Adam Johnson.
Here is the book trailer: