on 22 May 2013
Fantastic story that took me by surprise. It takes a good 200 pages before you really get the gist of what is happening but it feels great when it all fits into place. Also I think Adam Johnson deserves an enormous amount of praise for tackling this incredibly difficult, yet often ignored, problem that is N.Korea. American audiences no doubt hear a great deal about N.Korea but here in the UK we only hear about it when there is another missile test. It's incredibly disturbing to think a regime as backward as this has lasted so long. I was too young to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, I'm optimistic though that I will live to see the end of the DMZ.
Bearing in mind this is fiction, the narrative still projects a powerful real life message - something I an unlikely to forget anytime in the future.
I admit, if i had read about this book a year or two ago I probably wouldn't have been quite so intrigued by it. If there's any book that can be said to be topical and follow a resurgent trope, this is it. Not in any kind of exploitative way, needless to say. But through a series of unpleasant coincidences, this really should be the book of the moment, the one on everyone's lips. Not just for its topicality, but for it's quality also.
This is the story of a North Korean orphan boy, and his journey from the orphanage to the interrogation bunkers of his nation's Dear Leader. The structure is complex, and certainly not linear. The first couple of hundred pages tell of our orphaned young man's early adventures in his homeland, and the second tell of his fantastical reach into the echelons of the mad power structure of the country under the guise of one Commander Ga. The first section is [relatively] straightforward, the second is the more challenging, but once you get your head around what's going on, it is by some distance the more rewarding of the two sections (not that the first is not of high quality). It also becomes the most compulsively gripping, interesting, frightening, and dangerously strange.
This is a book about many things: identity and stories predominantly, however (characters lie, act, pretend, say what they expect the leaders want to hear, change names, change personalities, change husbands, change life-stories). The narrative message that's what is conveyed by narrative is true, whether or not it is the truth, is one of the overarching messages here. Certainly in terms of life in North Korea.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the story is the humanity of some of the characters, the citizens of Korea. Just like you and I, of course, but who live their lives with a complete different structure and belief, whether because simply go along with their governments version of events, or truly believe they live and are governed in the best way (it is deemed madness that Americans are not dispensed food tokens, that suntanning is not free, that dogs are trained in obedience but not children), which sometimes seems strangely plausible. The difference between people's internal and external lives is displayed clearly and sometimes heartbreakingly, particularly in some of the scenes between the interrogator and his parents.
This is a wonderful book. Deep and rich, moving, frightening, enlightening, scary, and funny. Highly recommended.
Set in North Korea, this book follows the life of the orphan master's son, Jun Do, as he becomes a tunnel fighter, kidnapper, spy and national hero.
The book has the air of a fable, and also tells the story through propaganda, imagining the way it might actually be told in North Korea. Often the story assumes a humorous, almost tongue in cheek air, yet when you consider it as a work of fiction that is actually based on a lot of research into a real nation and its people, it becomes very tragic. Families are punished for the perceived misdeeds of one member, fathers refuse to trust their own sons, and people will risk their lives for a meal of flowers.
Despite carrying out some horrible deeds, Jun Do manages to remain a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, a good man forced to commit atrocities by a cruel state that will turn on him all too quickly if he doesn't comply. The story leads him in picaresque fashion from one adventure to another, supported by a rich cast of characters who all have their own tragic stories.
This book can be taken on two levels, as a simple tale of one man's journey through life and suffering, but also as a very intelligent exploration of a secretive nation that is unfamiliar to many. Entertaining yet extremely thought-provoking, made all the more compelling by the notes that reveal the level of research carried out by the author, and his own travels in North Korea.
on 20 March 2016
Every so often a book shakes you out of your comfort zone - this is one. It's a terrible book in the true sense of the word, made all the more horrific when you consider a lot of what you're reading is going on at this very moment in the country it's set in - North Korea. In fact the author says he substituted some practices because the truth would be too unbelievable. We can afford to be sceptical to a point because: the author is American, and despite using the testimonies of multiple, independent defectors and one highly escorted visit to the country, this secret state must hide so much that we can't perceive. In the end, it's the hope that it can't really be that bad that keeps you going through the narrative.
The first part of the book is a relatively gentle unfolding of the protagonist's story. It's engaging, but written simply in the third person and easy to read. There's a huge shift in the middle of the book, where the perspective changes from first to third person, back again, and then to a different third person all together. There are huge time shifts as well, so the reader is constantly made to struggle for the story. By this time though, you are totally engrossed - it could have been written in the Korean language and I would have persevered with it. It's been compared to 1984 and Brave New World, but this isn't set in the future - this is now. The story is always the key to any novel, but this is also beautifully written and crosses many genres. You have to read it.
on 2 February 2014
The North Korean setting was intriguing and one of the main reasons I picked up the book, having finished Escape From Camp 14 not too long ago (which is a must read if you have an interest in the country). While the author does a great job at re-creating what we suspect the country may be like, I found the book incredibly hard to get into. I almost put it down a few times but forced myself to get through the novel. The character development is shallow for the most part and it's really hard to care much about what happens to the various people in the novel. The writing is also clunky at times with details sometimes not flowing together properly. I'm quite surprised this won a Pulitzer. While there are moments when the novel engages you, there are not enough of these to really draw the reader in. Instead, it tends to plod along. It's not horrible by any means, but it doesn't quite live up to the hype either.
There are very few novels set in modern day North Korea - with good reason. The political regime is so secretive and alien that research must be a nightmare. It's very hard to gauge how accurate a representation Adam Johnson's book is of this but it seems to be at least plausible and generally believable. What he does so well is to move from the opening slightly smug "isn't the propaganda thing a bit funny in terms of what people there believe" to making the reader really care and understand how shocking the effects of this can be on the individual lives of the people there. There are scenes of horrific suffering but Johnson retains a light touch wherever he can - so the Dear Leader, Kim Jon iL, is presented at times as being "lonely" in a nice nod to You Tube clips.
Johnson's hero, Jun Do, grows up in an orphanage run by his father. However he presents a mixture of people from all levels of society - there are those who believe in the myth of the leader and the propaganda, those who know the truth and use it to their own advantage and those who know the truth and use it just to survive. The challenge for a fiction writer is of course that it relies on personal stories and in a political culture like North Korea the individuality is suppressed.
The setting is fascinating and original and that does much to offset some of the aspects that perhaps stretch belief a little. It's hard to believe that Jun Do's lack of commitment to the cause would allow him to hold some of the positions that he finds himself in for example, but interchanging roles seems to be part of the model and presumably the argument against this goes that the leadership don't even question that everyone buys in to the story and aren't just compliant through fear.
At first the narrative is split between Jun Do's story and the official announcements of the State but later on we also get the story of an Interrogator. While this introduces a vital element to the story the mixture of the three strands doesn't always feel as smooth as it could do. However, it is a fascinating subject and a highly original book that celebrates the human spirit in impossible conditions. There's humour, a love story and fascinating insight into a mysterious country. Johnson is well worth reading - this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as a not unrelated movie might have put it.
This is a clever, well constructed tale about a mysterious country that has taken on added significance with the death of Kim JONG-iL. Korea has some 10 lane motorways but few motors. There was a famine in the nineties caused by the incompetence of the weird 'Dear leader.' A land of subsistence living for the peasants and insane extravagant, depraved behaviour for the Yong-iL clan. Kim fancied himself as Elvis with his buffon hairstyle and had an insatiable appetite for most things that his people couldn't even dream of. Many of 'his people' are eating grass or being maltreated in horrendous labour camps.
Pak Jun Do has what is prized most by the powerful in North Korea-loyalty and indifference to suffering. Pak Jun Do murders someone and takes their place. Dictatorships stay in power by being completely unpredictable and hence creating terror of breaking laws that are always changing. Break a law and you are dead or in a labour camp with your whole family. He meets a girl called Sun Moon and so the story becomes a heady mixture of thriller, tenderness and romance; with plenty of craziness thrown in. It is a cruel read at times as this is a harsh society that doesn't respect human rights. Well worth reading and will be around for a long time to come hopefully. My wife and I both read it which was good as we could discuss all the interesting intricacies of this fascinating book.
on 19 June 2013
The Orphan Master's Son isn't the easiest book to get into - it took 100 pages or so until I felt I understood the thread of the narrative and even then the reality of North Korea kept encroaching on what is, surprisingly, a deeply humourous tale.
My persistence was rewarded, though, with a fascinating narrative and a compelling insight into what life must be like within North Korea.
I'm not sure this is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize - in fact it seems very much that the prize was awarded for the book's not-so-subtle political stance, rather than the quality of the fiction - but its a great read all the same, and well recommended.
on 17 November 2015
I heard this book being recommended on the World Service so had to read it. If you get past the first couple of pages then you are hooked. It is such a disturbing eye-opener into the way life is in North Korea. If you think it is far-fetched then read the auto-biography of an escaped North Korean. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how a nation is controlled through fear and propaganda.
For a debut novel, this is refreshingly original and cleverly crafted; with carefully pitched details of a society almost completely alien and insular to the West.
North Korea, and the central character of Pak Jun Do, certainly mark a timely release; with interest in the real world transition of power from, the `Dear Leader', Kim Jong Il.
The backdrop is of a country at odds, with masses subsistence living and an elite few lavishing in extravagance.
Pak Jun Do, as the son of the caretaker of an orphanage, spends his early days trying to drop the associations of the orphans. Through opportunity, Pak Jun Do escapes his own existence and assumes the identity of another and taking their place; then through the twists and turns, that this entails.
There's certainly a mix intrigue, romance and no small measure of North Korean craziness as well.
I couldn't help but think of Pak Jun Do, through the earliest stages of the book, as a kind of dark 'Forrest Gump' character, with a life so extraordinary, that it's difficult not to love and hate the character in almost equal measure.
The book does develop to be darker though, as his assumed life is unravelled.
I'll admit that I certainly found it a challenging read at times. I couldn't really be described as a light read; but once I got into the tone and flow of the novel, it certainly emmersive with so many little details woven into the story.
What I come away with is a certainly something that's made me pause for thought and consider, not only the novel as a very good read, but North Korea and how little I actually know or understand of it. For that alone it should be applauded, a book that actually touches beyond the words.
It's certainly well worth reading and I'll happily recommend to friends and family.