Let me start by saying I was so impressed with this novel that I am going to come across like Adam Johnsons' mum, publisher, editor, best friend, paid acquaintance or a combination of any of the above. I was actually lucky enough to get a copy and just read it. The blurb makes it sound like a sort of comedy set in North Korea, in actuality it is a staggering achievement as to what you can do when you truly love the subject as Johnson does.
It is in two parts, the first chronicles the life or rather endurance and suffering of Jun Do; he is the son of the Orphan Master, after his mother was taken away to entertain the big wigs in Pyongyang, they were left alone. All beautiful girls from the provinces are taken away like this. It is also shameful to be an orphan and they have their real names ignored and are replaced with the names of fallen martyrs. This way they will always carry the mark and shame of being an orphan. Jun Do's father pretends he too is an orphan and treats him more harshly than the others, it is an existence of grinding poverty - made worse by the compulsory loud speakers that spout blatant propaganda all day and act as brain washing devices.
In turns he becomes a tunnel assassin in the Demilitarized Zone, a kidnapper and reluctant and not very good spy. He also ends up on a fishing boat where he gets the love of his life's image tattooed over his heart - the `best actress in the world' Sun Moon - not her real name, but chosen for her by The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il; or the fat tyrant who is famous for his song `I so Ronery', as we know him in the Imperialist West.
Then Part Two deals with the Taekwando Champion of the World and husband to the best actress - Commander Ga. He is famous for many things including ridding the army of homosexuals. This is done oft times by seeing if they can fend off his `man attacks' - a veiled euphemism for full on rear entry intercourse. If you fail well then you must have wanted it - makes perfect sense.
This book was researched by Adam Johnson for over six years and he visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to ensure authenticity. He has crammed so much in that it is as educational as it is both entertaining and moving. He brings all the characters to life and brilliantly highlights the failings of the West when viewed through the eyes of the North Koreans. Whilst at the heart of this there is a central theme of love and sacrifice, there is hope, there is humour, though comi-tragic would probably best describe it; but moreover there is a page turner of a story that had me hooked from the start and kept me right to the end. I actually had a dream about the characters at one point, I was that caught up in the book. I can not say enough good things about this brilliant, original, fascinating and thoroughly captivating read. I am longing for his next one and even if it takes another six years it will be worth the wait.