four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Adam Johnson
user_rating: 
0

A-The-Orphan-Masters-SonAdam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and is best known for his novel, Parasites Like Us (2003). His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, and The Best American Short Stories. For this book, Johnson traveled to North Korea and read testimony from defectors.

The Story: In North Korea's recent past, Kim Jong-il (who died in 2011) rules his Orwellian world with an iron thumb--and in this regime, individuals must constantly shift identities in order to survive. After his mother leaves for Pyongyang, Jun Do grows up in a children's home before being drafted into the army. He gains recognition as a tunnel soldier and is sent on increasingly important missions--first to kidnap Japanese citizens during night raids, then to spy on American submarines, and eventually to travel to the United States with other diplomats. But when he falls out of favor with his superiors, he learns just how difficult it is to survive within the world's most isolated and oppressive government.
Random House. 464 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780812992793

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars"[H]is depictions have the feel of eerie authenticity. ... The book is a work of high adventure, surreal coincidences and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality." Sam Sacks

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars"[T]he real marvel of The Orphan Master's Son is its imaginative depth and breadth, something that absolutely can't be faked. Which may be why there are no real novelists in North Korea." Laura Miller

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"The reader feels as if he is in Chongjin, where starving people ate the bark off trees; or atop Mount Taesong with the elite of Pyongyang, whose existence is a mix of sadism and whimsy; or with the masses who are bombarded day and night with the propaganda of North Korea's alternate reality." David Ignatius

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars"[A]n operatic if somewhat long-winded tale that is at once satiric and melancholy, blackly comic and sadly elegiac. ... In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice." Michiko Kakutani

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars"Johnson's chops are undeniable, his storytelling vivid and bold, his North Korea brilliantly rendered. But midway, a smart literary thriller sprouts into a David Mitchell novel without warning--making The Orphan Master's Son feel divided into two very different novels." David Daley

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars"Johnson's novel, far from being too labyrinthine, is an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun. ... Should ‘fun' really be the first word to describe a novel about one of the worst places on earth?" Christopher R. Beha

Critical Summary

The Washington Post described The Orphan Master's Son as "an audacious act of imagination: an intimate narrative about one of the most closed nations on Earth." Though most critics agreed, the story is by no means perfect. The abrupt shift in narrative and magical realism techniques may not sit well with some readers, and the New York Times Book Review critic, after reading a scene in which Kim Jong-il appeared "as a kind of merry prankster," wondered if the story is too farcical given the grim subject matter. But overall reaction suggests this novel just might deserve its hype. Noted the Wall Street Journal: "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."