Winner 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.