The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son

4.1 193
by Adam Johnson

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An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an

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An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do 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.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

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Editorial Reviews

Like his first novel, Parasites like Us, Adam Johnson's second, The Orphan Master's Son, migrates from the outlandish to the fantastic. In the former, the exhumation of relics of a lost civilization brings calamitous results, and popcorn plays a critical role; in the latter we have North Korea, a dystopia so bizarre in its own right that it might have sprung from the mind of Philip K. Dick. Extrapolating from what can be known, Johnson (who has spent years in research), pushes further, coming up with an unforgettable, harrowing vision that approaches delirium.

The novel's main character is Pak Jun Do, the son of a woman whose singing voice and beauty caused her to be stolen away to Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to which the country's few good things are inevitably transferred. Jun Do's father is the embittered, merciless warden of Long Tomorrows, an orphanage that serves as a supply bin of children to be used for hazardous casual labor and who, if not taken into slavery by Chinese labor procurers, will eventually end up in the army. After the orphanage is abandoned — all but a few of the children dead from the famine of the 1990s — Jun Do is trained in "zero-light combat" for missions in the tunnels that penetrate into South Korea. Some years later, he is recruited for kidnapping assignments, making forays across the sea to Japan, in one instance to nab an opera singer for the Dear Leader's collection of human trophies. ("The worst part was always the long trip back, listening to the abductees down in the hold, yelling, banging around as they struggled to get free of their ropes.")

Transferred from that worthy employment, Jun Do is eventually sent to language school and moves on to radio surveillance conducted from the hold of a decayed fishing vessel. Here faraway voices come to him crackling through the ether, among them those of the families U.S. servicemen had abandoned in Asia, Chinese prisoners confessing their transgressions, an American woman rowing around the world, and, most uncannily, a group of astronauts aboard a space station. Along the way, Jun Do's survival has depended on his committing shameful acts, the unbearable memories of which further distill in him a sense of isolation, alienation, and distrust. Misfortune and a paranoid state's expediency eventually land him in the gulag, in a work camp whose contribution to the revolutionary homeland is uranium mining and blood harvesting. Survival here is a matter of ruthlessness and creepy, esoteric devices.

Johnson's depiction of North Korea is filled with richly worked quotidian detail, as well as scenes that are hyper-vivid and ghoulish. Jun Do's journey is, in a word, Swiftian, a progress marked by grotesque imagery, distortions of reason, and pervasive irony: Starving people flit through graveyards at night to eat the flowers left by relatives of the dead; dogs are raised for food on the roofs of buildings, occasionally falling off. The real and surreal merge under the lens of Johnson's formidable, all-encompassing imagination, his descriptive passages conveying the country's terrible blend of totalitarianism, chaos, and individual tragedy. Scenes of catastrophe, especially, give glimpses of a repressed, impoverished society smashed into its wretched components. Here are the floods that inaugurated the famine:

Three weeks of rain, yet the loudspeakers said nothing of terraces collapsing, earth dams giving, villages cascading into one another. The army was busy trying to save the Sungli 58 factory from the rising water, so the Long Tomorrows boys were given ropes and long-handled gaffs to try to snare people from the Chongjin River before they were washed into the harbor. The water was a roil of timber, petroleum tanks, and latrine barrels. A tractor tire turned in the water, a Soviet refrigerator. They heard the deep booms of boxcars tumbling along the river bottom. The canopy of a troop carrier spun past, a screaming family clinging to it. Then a young woman rose from the water, mouth wide but silent, and the orphan called Bo Song gaffed her arm — right away he was jerked into the current. Bo Song had come to the orphanage a frail boy, and when they discovered he had no hearing, Jun Do gave him the name Un Bo Song, after the 37th Martyr of the Revolution, who'd famously put mud in his ears so he couldn't hear the bullets as he charged the Japanese.
As he moves through North Korea's nightmare world, Jun Do repeatedly comes upon the bleak evidence of personal tragedy, among both acquaintances and strangers. Seated in the back of a prison vehicle, he sees "spinning in eddies of wind through the floorboards?the shells of hard-boiled eggs, a dozen of them, perhaps. This was too many eggs for a single person to eat. And nobody would share their eggs with a stranger, so it must have been a family. In contrast to this miserable land, the sea offers Jun Do evidence of an enormous world of plenty, in one instance, the sight of a "large vessel creeping by, its deck carpeted with new cars. As it passed?the moonlight flashed in rapid succession off a thousand new windshields." Later, in another arresting scene, the crew, seining for shrimp, pull up a great haul of Nike athletic shoes, presumably washed from some freighter. ("The Pilot was marveling over a size fifteen, over what manner of human would take that size and the Machinist had created a tall pile of shoes he intended for his wife to try.")

The novel is put together through crafty, even devious story work, from shuffled slices of memory and from several angles and voices: Jun Do's, a torturer's, and that of the loudspeakers that spew propaganda into every house. These last extol the Dear Leader's virtues and the country's unbounded prosperity, the envy of all nations, and shape daily events into inspiring, didactic tales. In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, one character explains, "Stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

That observation is the book's central theme and a conceit demonstrating the effect on reality of widespread, overwhelming fear. It is also the portal through which Jun Do escapes the gulag. He seizes the identity of a powerful general and is launched upon a different life and destiny, his fate joined to that of a movie star, Sun Moon, and her children. It is an improbable feat, of course, but it is perfectly in keeping with the novel's spirit and intricacies. Further, the events and scenes that follow open another vein of rich material, including an interlude with the Dear Leader himself. Jun Bo's audacity in using the state's own means of control for his purposes shows the irrepressibility of individual will — or at least its possibility — under even the most brutal regimes. But for some reason, Johnson, whose work is otherwise free from thematic plod, decided to bang the lesson home by including a parallel with the movie Casablanca, a crude element, completely out of place in the novel's intoxicating amalgam of imagery and irony. Except for that misstep, the novel is a thoroughly exhilarating work of imagination and terrible poignancy.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Power

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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6.60(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.36(d)

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JUN DO'S mother was a singer. That was all Jun Do's father, the Orphan Master, would say about her. The Orphan Master kept a photograph of a woman in his small room at Long Tomorrows. She was quite lovely-eyes large and sideways looking, lips pursed with an unspoken word. Since beautiful women in the provinces get shipped to Pyongyang, that's certainly what had happened to his mother. The real proof of this was the Orphan Master himself. At night, he'd drink, and from the barracks, the orphans would hear him weeping and lamenting, striking half-heard bargains with the woman in the photograph. Only Jun Do was allowed to comfort him, to finally take the bottle from his hands.

As the oldest boy at Long Tomorrows, Jun Do had responsibilities- portioning the food, assigning bunks, renaming the new boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. Even so, the Orphan Master was serious about showing no favoritism to his son, the only boy at Long Tomorrows who wasn't an orphan. When the rabbit warren was dirty, it was Jun Do who spent the night locked in it. When boys wet their bunks, it was Jun Do who chipped the frozen piss off the floor. Jun Do didn't brag to the other boys that he was the son of the Orphan Master, rather than some kid dropped off by parents on their way to a 9-27 camp. If someone wanted to figure it out, it was pretty obvious- Jun Do had been there before all of them, and the reason he'd never been adopted was because his father would never let someone take his only son. And it made sense that after his mother was stolen to Pyongyang, his father had applied for the one position that would allow him to both earn a living and watch over his son.

The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.

Occasionally, a factory would adopt a group of kids, and in the spring, men with Chinese accents would come to make their picks. Other than that, anyone who could feed the boys and provide a bottle for the Orphan Master could have them for the day. In summer they filled sandbags and in winter they used metal bars to break sheets of ice from the docks. On the machining floors, for bowls of cold chap chai, they would shovel the coils of oily metal that sprayed from the industrial lathes. The railyard fed them best, though, spicy yukejang. One time, shoveling out boxcars, they swept up a powder that looked like salt. It wasn't until they started sweating that they turned red, their hands and faces, their teeth. The train had been filled with chemicals for the paint factory. For weeks, they were red.

And then in the year Juche 85, the floods came. Three weeks of rain, yet the loudspeakers said nothing of terraces collapsing, earth dams giving, villages cascading into one another. The Army was busy trying to save the Sungli 58 factory from the rising water, so the Long Tomorrows boys were given ropes and long-handled gaffs to try to snare people from the Chongjin River before they were washed into the harbor. The water was a roil of timber, petroleum tanks, and latrine barrels. A tractor tire turned in the water, a Soviet refrigerator. They heard the deep booms of boxcars tumbling along the river bottom. The canopy of a troop carrier spun past, a screaming family clinging to it. Then a young woman rose from the water, mouth wide but silent, and the orphan called Bo Song gaffed her arm-right away he was jerked into the current. Bo Song had come to the orphanage a frail boy, and when they discovered he had no hearing, Jun Do gave him the name Un Bo Song, after the 37th Martyr of the Revolution, who'd famously put mud in his ears so he couldn't hear the bullets as he charged the Japanese.

Still, the boys shouted "Bo Song, Bo Song" as they ran the riverbanks, racing beside the patch of river where Bo Song should have been. They ran past the outfall pipes of the Unification Steelworks and along the muddy berms of the Ryongsong's leach ponds, but Bo Song was never seen again. The boys stopped at the harbor, its dark waters ropy with corpses, thousands of them in the throes of the waves, looking like curds of sticky millet that start to flop and toss when the pan heats.

Though they didn't know it, this was the beginning of the famine-first went the power, then the train service. When the shock-work whistles stopped blowing, Jun Do knew it was bad. One day the fishing fleet went out and didn't come back. With winter came blackfinger and the old people went to sleep. These were just the first months, long before the bark-eaters. The loudspeakers called the famine an Arduous March, but that voice was piped in from Pyongyang. Jun Do had never heard anyone in Chongjin call it that. What was happening to them didn't need a name-it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust. When all hope was gone, the Orphan Master burned the bunks, the boys sleeping around a pot stove that glowed on their last night. In the morning, he flagged down a Soviet Tsir, the military truck they called "the crow" because of its black canvas canopy on the back. There were only a dozen boys left, a perfect fit in the back of the crow. All orphans are destined for the Army eventually. But this was how Jun Do, at fourteen, became a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat.

And that's where Officer So found him, eight years later. The old man actually came underground to get a look at Jun Do, who'd spent an overnighter with his team inside a tunnel that went ten kilometers under the DMZ, almost to the suburbs of Seoul. When exiting a tunnel, they'd always walk out backward, to let their eyes adjust, and he almost ran into Officer So, whose shoulders and big rib cage spoke of a person who'd come of age in the good times, before the Chollima campaigns.

"Are you Pak Jun Do?" he asked.

When Jun Do turned, a circle of light glowed behind the man's close- cropped white hair. The skin on his face was darker than his scalp or jaw, making it look like the man had just shaved off a beard and thick, wild hair. "That's me," Jun Do said.

"That's a Martyr's name," Officer So said. "Is this an orphan detail?"

Jun Do nodded his head. "It is," he said. "But I'm not an orphan."

Officer So's eyes fell upon the red taekwondo badge on Jun Do's chest.

"Fair enough," Officer So said and tossed him a sack.

In it were blue jeans, a yellow shirt with a polo pony, and shoes called Nikes that Jun Do recognized from long ago, when the orphanage was used to welcome ferry-loads of Koreans who had been lured back from Japan with promises of Party jobs and apartments in Pyongyang. The orphans would wave welcome banners and sing Party songs so that the Japanese Koreans would descend the gangway, despite the horrible state of Chongjin and the crows that were waiting to transport them all to kwan li so labor camps. It was like yesterday, watching those perfect boys with their new sneakers, finally coming home.

Jun Do held up the yellow shirt. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.

"It's your new uniform," Officer So said. "You don't get seasick, do you?"


He didn't. They took a train to the eastern port of Cholhwang, where Officer So commandeered a fishing boat, the crew so frightened of their military guests that they wore their Kim Il Sung pins all the way across the sea to the coast of Japan. Upon the water, Jun Do saw small fish with wings and late morning fog so thick it took the words from your mouth. There were no loudspeakers blaring all day, and all the fishermen had portraits of their wives tattooed on their chests. The sea was spontaneous in a way he'd never seen before-it kept your body uncertain as to how you'd lean next, and yet you could become comfortable with that. The wind in the rigging seemed in communication with the waves shouldering the hull, and lying atop the wheelhouse under the stars at night, it seemed to Jun Do that this was a place a man could close his eyes and exhale.

Officer So had also brought along a man named Gil as their translator. Gil read Japanese novels on the deck and listened to headphones attached to a small cassette player. Only once did Jun Do try to speak to Gil, approaching him to ask what he was listening to. But before Jun Do could open his mouth, Gil stopped the player and said the word "Opera."

They were going to get someone-someone on a beach-and bring that someone home with them. That's all Officer So would say about their trip.

On the second day, darkness falling, they could see the distant lights of a town, but the Captain would take the boat no closer.

"This is Japan," he said. "I don't have charts for these waters."

"I'll tell you how close we get," Officer So said to the Captain, and with a fisherman sounding for the bottom, they made for the shore.

Jun Do got dressed, cinching the belt to keep the stiff jeans on.

"Are these the clothes of the last guy you kidnapped?" Jun Do asked.

Officer So said, "I haven't kidnapped anyone in years."

Jun Do felt his face muscles tighten, a sense of dread running through him.

"Relax," Officer So said. "I've done this a hundred times."


"Well, twenty-seven times."

Officer So had brought a little skiff along, and when they were close to the shore, he directed the fishermen to lower it. To the west, the sun was setting over North Korea, and it was cooling now, the wind shifting directions. The skiff was tiny, Jun Do thought, barely big enough for one person, let alone three and a struggling kidnap victim. With a pair of binoculars and a thermos, Officer So climbed down into the skiff. Gil followed. When Jun Do took his place next to Gil, black water lapped over the sides, and right away his shoes soaked through. He debated revealing that he couldn't swim.

Gil kept trying to get Jun Do to repeat phrases in Japanese. Good evening-Konban wa. Excuse me, I am lost-Chotto sumimasen, michi ni mayoimashita. Can you help me find my cat?-Watashi no neko ga maigo ni narimashita?

Officer So pointed their nose toward shore, the old man pushing the outboard motor, a tired Soviet Vpresna, way too hard. Turning north and running with the coast, the boat would lean shoreward as a swell lifted, then rock back toward open water as the wave set it down again.

Gil took the binoculars, but instead of training them on the beach, he studied the tall buildings, the way the downtown neon came to life.

"I tell you," Gil said. "There was no Arduous March in this place."

Jun Do and Officer So exchanged a look.

Officer So said to Gil, "Tell him what 'how are you' was again."

"Ogenki desu ka," Gil said.

"Ogenki desu ka," Jun Do repeated. "Ogenki desu ka."

"Say it like 'How are you, my fellow citizen?' Ogenki desu ka," Officer So said. "Not like how are you, I'm about to pluck you off this fucking beach."

Jun Do asked, "Is that what you call it, plucking?"

"A long time ago, that's what we called it." He put on a fake smile. "Just say it nice."

Jun Do said, "Why not send Gil? He's the one who speaks Japanese."

Officer So returned his eyes to the water. "You know why you're here."

Gil asked, "Why's he here?"

Officer So said, "Because he fights in the dark."

Gil turned to Jun Do. "You mean that's what you do, that's your career?" he asked.

"I lead an incursion team," Jun Do said. "Mostly we run in the dark, but yeah, there's fighting, too."

Gil said, "I thought my job was fucked up."

"What was your job?" Jun Do asked.

"Before I went to language school?" Gil asked. "Land mines."

"What, like defusing them?"

"I wish," Gil said.

They closed within a couple hundred meters of shore, then trolled along the beaches of Kagoshima Prefecture. The more the light faded, the more intricately Jun Do could see it reflected in the architecture of each wave that rolled them.

Gil lifted his hand. "There," he said. "There's somebody on the beach. A woman."

Officer So backed off the throttle and took the field glasses. He held them steady and fine-tuned them, his bushy white eyebrows lifting and falling as he focused. "No," he said, handing the binoculars back to Gil. "Look closer, it's two women. They're walking together."

Jun Do said, "I thought you were looking for a guy?"

"It doesn't matter," the old man said. "As long as the person's alone."

"What, we're supposed to grab just anybody?"

Officer So didn't answer. For a while, there was nothing but the sound of the Vpresna. Then Officer So said, "In my time, we had a whole division, a budget. I'm talking about a speedboat, a tranquilizing gun. We'd surveil, infiltrate, cherry-pick. We didn't pluck family types, and we never took children. I retired with a perfect record. Now look at me. I must be the only one left. I'll bet I'm the only one they could find who remembers this business."

Gil fixed on something on the beach. He wiped the lenses of the binoculars, but really it was too dark to see anything. He handed them to Jun Do. "What do you make out?" he asked.

When Jun Do lifted the binoculars, he could barely discern a male figure moving along the beach, near the water-he was just a lighter blur against a darker blur, really. Then some motion caught Jun Do's eye. An animal was racing down the beach toward the man-a dog it must've been, but it was big, the size of a wolf. The man did something and the dog ran away.

Jun Do turned to Officer So. "There's a man. He's got a dog with him."

Officer So sat up and put a hand on the outboard engine. "Is he alone?"

Jun Do nodded.

"Is the dog an akita?"

Jun Do didn't know his breeds. Once a week, the orphans had cleaned out a local dog farm. Dogs were filthy animals that would lunge for you at any opportunity-you could see where they'd attacked the posts of their pens, chewing through the wood with their fangs. That's all Jun Do needed to know about dogs.

Officer So said, "As long as the thing wags its tail. That's all you got to worry about."

Gil said, "The Japanese train their dogs to do little tricks. Say to the dog, Nice doggie, sit. Yoshi Yoshi. Osuwari Kawaii desu ne."

Jun Do said, "Will you shut up with the Japanese?"

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book's cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” The Wall Street Journal

The Orphan Master’s Son performs an unusual form of sorcery, taking a frankly cruel and absurd reality and somehow converting it into a humane and believable fiction. It’s an epic feat of story-telling. It’s thrillingly written, and it's just thrilling period.” —Zadie Smith, Los Angeles Times

“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son.  Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.” The Washington Post

“Adam Johnson's remarkable novel The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.” Wall Street Journal

"A harrowing, clever, incomparable riff on life in Kim Jong Il's North Korea” San Francisco Chronicle

“Magnificently accomplished…Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research…but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author's imagination…rich with a sense of discovery…The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012” The Daily Beast

"Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son." National Geographic Traveler

“An incredibly vivid page-turner of a novel…Romance, coming-of-age tale, adventure and thriller all in one, this book is singular and not to be missed.” The Huffington Post, 10 Best January Must-Reads

"The death of Kim Jong Il couldn't have come at a better time for novelist Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son is a richly textured political thriller about the hidden world of North Korea with all of its misery, violence and defiant acts of love under impossible circumstances. Stunning and evocative imagery abounds on every page.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Startling…Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic...[He] writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat.” Newsday

“Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: ‘...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.’ In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” Publisher's Weekly, (STARRED REVIEW )

“[A] fantastical, careening tale…Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief.…Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.” Booklist (STARRED REVIEW)

“Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended.” Library Journal, (STARRED REVIEW)

“[A] vivid, violent portrait of a nation…[a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot-on saga. Johnson’s metathriller, spiked with gory intrigues and romantic subplots, is a ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory in a world where everyone’s “a survivor who has nothing to live for.” Elle

“Ambitious, violent, audacious—and stunningly good.” O Magazine

“Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” —Abraham Verghese

“An addictive novel of daring ingenuity; a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty; and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love. A brave and impressive book.” —David Mitchell

“I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece.” —Charles Bock

“The Kim Jong Il that we meet in Adam Johnson’s second novel, set in North Korea, is no cartoon villain, no Team America marionette. He’s a three-dimensional character­—a hairsprayed, jump-suited, hopping-mad monomaniac, sure, but a man in whom we can recognize some of our own jealousies and desires. And although he is offstage more often than not in The Orphan Master's Son, Dear Leader, as he’s usually referred to, is omnipresent in every conversation, every moment of intimacy, every sorrow that takes place somewhere in this fictional DPRK…Johnson is a lunatic story teller … Johnson’s seriocomic method of piling farces upon tragedies upon atrocities doesn’t distance us from the violence so much as make it bearable: His scenes of torture display an unflinching, bone-crunching directness. And yet some of the most affecting scenes are the quieter, scenes of domesticity. Nothing in the book is more poignant than the interrogator’s love for, and fear of, his blind frail parents, whom he suspects of spying on him…Peering into one of the world’s most closed societies, the author has located the similarities between us and them, offering the possibility that we in the United States might be able to relate to the cognitive dissonance North Koreans experience on a daily basis. The idea that we can clearly recognize the people behind that iron curtain—that we can identify with their psychological disconnects—ought to console us, just as it ought to trouble us.” Bookforum

“Blending personal story, political history, and what one character calls ‘the greatest North Korean love story ever told,’ Johnson follows an orphan who starts out as a tunnel soldier and rises through the military ranks until he’s set to challenge Kim Jong-Il himself. Nothing but raves, everywhere I look.” Library Journal

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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 193 reviews.
code7r More than 1 year ago
When I started reading this book, I wondered if it was science fiction, where I was taken to this "Big Brother" planet where a society totally lives in fear under the rule of a madman. It has hard to digest that this was an actual place on earth at this time and age. It is about life in North Korea and a character named Pak Jun Do. We begin by meeting Pak Jun Do at an orphanage that his father works at. Being an orphan is considered being one of the lowliest persons alive. Although Pak Jun Do's father works there, everyone he meets thinks he is an orphan and immediately forms their opinion about him. We follow Jun Do through his unbelieveable and haunting life where he seems to be the puppet of those above him. He is forced to become a kidnapper, an intelligence officer that lives on a fishing boat, a prisoner, and eventually tortured. Throughout this, he has one thing to cling to, his love for the national actress, Sun Moon. We do not know his original name, but then he becomes Jun Do in the orphanage and then becomes others as the book progresses. In a society where you can "replace" a husband, or a wife, etc., and accept that as reality, Jun Do becomes who he needs to be when he needs to be. I am so fortunate to have received an advanced copy of this book. I do not think it is a book I would have picked up on my own to read. Once I started reading, I was hooked. The author weaves Jun Do's different lives in and out of one another, and jumps from the present to the past and back again. It was confusing in the beginning, but once I figured out what was going on, it made the journey more interesting. It really opened my eyes to the injustices that are occuring in North Korea and makes me thankful that I live in America. I would encourage others to read this book so they, too, can learn about life in North Korea
JoeJohnIII More than 1 year ago
In The Orphan Master’s Son Adam Johnson brings to life the concept and reality of North Korea as only a master could. He knits together reality with one of the great fictions of movie history (Casablanca) but transcends even Rick’s character with that of Jun Do, the orphan master’s son. Jun Do’s character starts at the lowest rung in North Korea, an orphan, at least an orphan due to the denial by the orphan master to even acknowledge him as his son. Jun Do’s launch outside the orphanage starts with carrying out clandestine missions for the State (as directed by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) where he shows promise in learning foreign languages, then moves to high adventure at sea where he rises to hero status only to fall from grace. His subsequent incarceration exposes him to a camp where exhausted workers suffer their grisly terminal exploitation as unwilling blood and organ donors. Then almost by accident he manages to transform himself to a new identity as the second most powerful person in North Korea, one regarded with paranoiac fear even by Kim Jong Il. It is the last transition that allows Jun Do the pleasure of finding his Ilsa, the most beloved actress in all of North Korea for whom Kim Jong Il personally writes scripts and secretly loves. Along Jun Do’s winding trail, Johnson introduces a myriad of heterogeneous characters extending from two American women rowing around the world to North Korean fishermen pressed into service to sponsor spies and carry out absurd personal missions for the Dear Leader’s whims. Jun Do and his fellow cast members reveal a state that most of us can only imagine—one devoted entirely to Kim Jong Il and his obsessions, his world view, his total control of information, his complete disregard for common morality. Fear permeates and dominates every person’s single day, their every action, their every “private” conversation. Johnson’s lively writing uses diverse strokes to paint this wide ranging action to evoke both acceptance and rejection by his characters’ anima. Using fascinating style and imagination, he weaves together so many emotions and conditions from despair to cautious hope to probe a culture with which few of us are at all familiar that his book deserves a read, maybe two to savor it fully.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one heck of a read. I found myself thinking "if this is even 1/10th true, what a horrific place North Korea is". It was very hard to read, but at the same time, irresistable. When I couldn't bear to read another page, I'd put it down, then realize I wanted to find out what happened to each character. Hard to follow all the character voices, but hang in there. It's LONG but worth it in the end.
jdleighton More than 1 year ago
I was thinking about it, and this is the best novel I have ever read in my life, and I say that carefully after thinking it over. With all the novels being published these days, there are not a lot of magisterial ones with a short plot summary that makes you want to immediately read them. But this, a novel about North Koreans, set in North Korea, is. A big-hearted meditation on freedom, love, and goodness. It's also a book with many,many beautiful passages and great inner tension that makes it very gripping. I heard Mr. Johnson speak in New York; he was describing the research he did and mentioned the defected sushi chef (not a spoiler, a real life occurrence). "I'm rambling, to bring up [the chef]," he said, folding his hands and looking off over our heads into the distance. I almost yelled out, "No you're not! I'm hanging on every word!" This novel has beauty of language, penetrating psychological insight (truly rare), and a good plot and action. It is wholly perfect! Definitely buy this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just Stunning! An absolute must read that will tear your heart out and make you greatful for what you have.
Jeeeez More than 1 year ago
When I finished reading this book, I did some research on N Korea. I had no idea that there was so much fact in this work of fiction. The story was riveting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just finished and I have to say this was the best book I read in 2012. It's been a very long time since a book has held my attention from start to finish. I have never read a book about North Korea before and I found this story to be unbelievably heartbreaking and eye-opening regarding this suppressed society.
Tiger_Girl More than 1 year ago
BEST BOOK I'VE READ IN AGES!!! Honestly, couldn't stop until I finished it because I had to find out where it was going. North Korea is the mystery nation, and this book puts you in the mind of the common man. Not a pretty place, but twisted and at times comical. Propaganda is the name of the game. Read it, you won't be sorry.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
Adventurous and ambitious. The title is misleading. Jun Do (John Doe) lives in an orphanage in Chongjin, North Korea. He is introduced to us as the Orphan Master’s son, so in theory, he is not an orphan and constantly reminds the reader of this. However, he is treated like an orphan and given a name from a list of martyrs so you have to assume that he is, in fact, an orphan. When the orphanage begins to lose its battle to famine, Jun Do is enlisted into the army. There, he performs missions in tunnels operating under zero-light conditions. The fact that he spends so much time in the dark is not a coincidence. This is North Korea after all. Anyway, after this adventure he gets a job translating radio transmissions, ends up in Texas, makes friends with a senator’s wife… kidnaps people and let’s not forget when he switches identity with Commander Ga, a national hero. This was a bizarre read. Bizarre, but utterly fascinating. I liked Jun Do. I think that is why I decided to stay with him, no matter what he was doing, or what was going on around him. I knew I liked him when he kidnapped people and somehow, I still felt sympathy for him. Is he taken advantage of? Is that why I felt sorry for him? No. I never once felt that he was ever taken advantage of, but he moves with the times. He continues to move forward no matter what is thrown at him and although he cannot be considered a hero, I did find his resiliency to be admirable. Although there isn’t too much said about Kim Jong il, he is present throughout the novel. The translated radio broadcasts, which in reality function as a form of brain washing and a way to spread propaganda, are peppered throughout. I was constantly reminded of who was in charge and it gave a very 1984-esque tone to the novel. This, I very much enjoyed. What I enjoyed less, was the meandering nature of the story itself. Jun Do was here, there…heck he was everywhere. There are girls on boats, there’s fishing… there are famous singers and girls getting sent to Pyongyang, ultimately, to be prostitutes. There’s even a famous actress whose shine is just beginning to wear off (think Sunset Boulevard). This was the perfect example of too much. Even though there was a lot going on, I zipped through this book, only to sit and wonder what the heck I’d say about it. It was surreal and sometimes reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s writing, but the payoff wasn’t as good and it took me weeks to sort through my feelings. I do like a book that forces me to think, but I’m not sure the author’s goal was to completely put a halt to my everyday life. THAT is how much I thought about this book. Now here you are, wondering if you should read it. If you are the type of reader who likes to work through a book and not have things handed to you on a silver platter, then you might enjoy this book. If you like adventure, then there is plenty of that to be found within its pages. And I have to say, I did enjoy Jun Do’s character although I never did figure him out. The book itself was a fast read and quite different from anything I’ve read before. That’s saying something, right?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is beautifully crafted with details that only someone who knows his material could write. Johnson's portrayal of characters caught up in a repressive society is sharp and memorable. Be prepared, however, to read this book in small increments. I usually read a book over the course of a few days, but the plot of "The Orphan Master's Son" was more intense than I could handle in one sitting. I read a few pages at a time, then set the book aside for several days. All in all, this is an excellent book, albeit not an easy one to read.
Lyn13 More than 1 year ago
This book was an absolute surprise. I had read the usual comments on what the book was about, but expected quite a different ending. Very entertaining and you cannot put it down. Excellent read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What are these reviewers who denounce the merit of this book reading? And how could anyone say they don't understand how the people of North Korea put up with the deplorable conditions? Uh, I guess they should just leave the place. Are readers that uninformef about the world we live in? And can people please please check the corect use of ITS/IT'S. It makes your review seem ...well...uneducated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel will remind me always of how fortunate I am to live in this country. A compelling read with a triumph of spirit and determination.
Brittwrit More than 1 year ago
I could not stop reading The Orphan Master's Son! This was probably the most riveting book I've picked up in a long time. Johnson paints a vivid picture of the repressed nation of North Korea. The novel jumps around a bit, but I didn't find this confusing. Instead, the disjointed style of the narrative reflects the nature of the plot. Jun Do's identity becomes intertwined with Commander Ga's, and the story he tells to an unnamed interrogator in Division 42 leaves the interrogator confused, disbelieving and disillusioned by the system governing him and his fellow citizens. This a beautiful, albeit dark, tale that I cannot recommend enough.
MacMaiden More than 1 year ago
Compelling tale and fascinating look inside the world's most closed society. Really enjoyed it. Amazing view of how a totalitarian regime controls all information to maintain its grip on power. Ideal for book clubs. With all the flashbacks and propaganda segments, it's a bit choppy and confusing at times. But you can soon figure out what's going on. Definitely needs the hand of a good copy editor to clean up the awkward phrasing and word use.
shelley1AL More than 1 year ago
I am forcing myself to finish this book. It is compelling in that I'm learning all I ever want to know about North Korea. It's very disturbing in that regard. But the story itself is hard to follow, a lot of it is like someone describing their dream in that it doesn't make a lot of sense. But I will finish this book. And I won't recommend it to anybody. It's pretty awful. How people can live under these conditions is a mystery.
KY_reader More than 1 year ago
This book stayed with me long after I was finished. It's on my personal top 25 list!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thus book is a great read. It takes the reader into a strange world of propaganda and fear. The book is fiction, but grounded by the author's vast knowledge of North Korea. Of you want an easy feel good read this book is not for you. It is a web of story lines that will keep you guessing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read it in the summer, but it's not a light, summer read.
BeckyNC More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully captivating!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not believe people could live and be treated this way. If it is even 10% accurate about conditions in N Korea, thats awful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Only half way through, but enjoying it very much. So well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really brings you into this weird country!
franni62 More than 1 year ago
A brilliant book! Ingeniously crafted. Having been born in a communist country I could so relate. People have been treating each other with contempt, disregard and inhumanity for centuries and based on today's headlines there is no sign of it changing - this book demonstrates, at least one aspect, of how depraved humanity can be. Thankfully redemption can be found by those who seek it! The impressions of this book will stay with me for a long, long time.