Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son
From The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson:
Open quote 

His whole life, he'd been assigned to work details without warning or explanation. There'd never been any point in asking questions or speculating on why -- it never changed the work that had to be done. But then again, he'd never had anything to lose before."

That's life in North Korea.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

This is a difficult novel to characterize. The early parts describe a distopia in the manner of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" or something by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. By the end the bleak novel turns surreal. Or maybe it's life in North Korea that's surreal and this novel is just faithfully capturing that irrational world.

The orphan master's son is Jun Do, a North Korean everyman who grows up in a orphanage but who isn't an orphan himself (his father runs the orphanage). We follow Jun Do into adulthood and his various duties in service of the fatherland. The novel becomes an adventure at sea, a spy novel, a love story and a thriller. Halfway through the novel an unlikely twist of fate befalls Jun Do. That's when the novel turns surreal. The novel shifts focus, from ordinary North Koreans to the inner circle of Kim Jong Il. Life there is at once both lavish and even more cruel. The surrealism reaches ever greater heights (and depths) right up until the climactic last page.

Jun Do is not an easy character to empathize with. Jun Do is a dutiful citizen, following his evil orders without hesitation or regret. North Korea sucks the humanity out of its citizens, who learn that to feel is to risk oblivion. Still, Jun Do manages to find some semblance of humanity as he experiences something resembling love, eventually earning some sympathy and even respect from the reader. It must be hell living in North Korea. It's not easy even reading about it. But in the end, reading "The Orphan Master's Son" is a rewarding exercise.

The ebook in Kindle format is available for free from the Richardson Public Library.

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