The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's SonWinner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ by Adam Johnson tells the story of Pak Jun Do’s journey from life in a North Korean state orphanage to professional kidnapper to a career in Pyongyang at the heart of Kim Jong-il’s regime.  It is an intriguing and sprawling story which explores several aspects of life in one of the most secretive countries in the world.

There are a fair number of non-fiction books about life in North Korea but Johnson’s decision to set a novel in this notoriously secretive country is an exceptionally brave move given that relatively little is known about everyday life there.  Moreover, viewing North Korea as an outsider from the West is one thing but telling a story from the point of view of somebody who has grown up there is entirely another.  However, even though there is no way of really knowing how authentic Jun Do’s voice is, Johnson seems to pull it off convincingly thanks to his brilliant imagination, thorough research and careful plotting throughout this epic story.

The book is split into two parts.  The first half is called ‘The Biography of Jun Do’ while the second half is called ‘The Confessions of Commander Ga’.  I have read a couple of reviews of ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ which noted that the second half is less enjoyable than the first half and I would be inclined to agree with that.  In this section, Jun Do takes on the identity of a famous military commander and enemy of Kim Jong-il.  The three different narratives (the propaganda broadcasts, the first-person account by an interrogator and a third-person account) make this second half harder to follow than the first.

As very little is known about everyday life for North Korean citizens, I think the line between fiction and non-fiction can become easily blurred with this particular subject matter.  The events of Jun Do’s life are often nightmarish and dystopian and yet it is also impossible to forget that North Korea is a very real place where a lot of very scary things have happened.  This fine line between imagination and truth and not knowing where the latter really lies is what makes ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ such an unsettling read. 

Overall, ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ is a cleverly written book but it was more exhausting to read than I was expecting.  However, although it certainly wasn’t an easy read, it is still a fascinating story set in a fascinating country and is well worth your time if you are interested in North Korea.


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12 responses to “The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

  1. Hmmm! I had been wondering about selecting this for one of my book groups but after what you’ve said I think perhaps I’ve got the wrong group in mind. I’m not sure they’d cope with that second half. I also belong to a group that only reads prize winners so perhaps I’ll try it on them.


  2. Hmm, I had read a couple of online pieces criticizing this book for not being authentic enough. So little is known about North Korea, it’s hard to document anything,

    Also, I am so over these boring book titles, all in the same style- The Orphan Master’s son, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Shoemaker’s Wife, and so on…a little creativity would be nice.


    • The fiction/non-fiction thing is hard to get right but I find it a bit odd that people are criticising Johnson for lack of authenticity when there is no way of really knowing what North Korea is like from the point of view of those who live there. At least he has been quite specific in interviews about which parts of the book were based entirely on his own imagination such as the torture scenes.


  3. I started this book earlier in the year with high hopes. In the end, it disappointed me for all the reasons you mention above. The cliche title. The overly dramatic premise which overshadows the true plight of the North Korean. Precisely because readers (who aren’t so informed about the country) won’t be able to know where fact ends and fiction begins, I wish the storyline had been a little pared back…. Ah well. Maybe I expected too much since this is pretty much the first prize-winning novel on NK to have emerged in English.


  4. The comparison of the present and fiction from an outsider’s perspective is interesting. Infact this comparison would make a person read this book.


  5. The Nashville Reader

    Great review. I was wondering whether to pick it up or not. It just got moved up on my list. Thanks.


  6. The novel is sitting in my TBR pile :43 books and counting. After reading yr review, I’m in no rush to read it.


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  8. Excellent review! It was tough going, but I thought it was ultimately rewarding. I have a lot of respect for the author’s ambition. I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been able to sell this book to ONE person — even after it won the Pulitzer Prize. (I’m a bookseller in a small indie bookstore.)


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