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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,6011754,539 (4.05)243
Title:Orphan Masters Son
Authors:Adam Johnson
Info:Random House Export (2012), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library, Autographed
Tags:2012 Read, Literary Fiction, North Korean Fiction

Work details

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

  1. 80
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (kqueue)
    kqueue: A non-fiction account of people in North Korea. The hardships they endure at the hands of their government are jaw-dropping. It backs up everything in The Orphan Master's Son.
  2. 10
    The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B. R. Myers (bibliothequaire)
  3. 10
    Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Henrik_Madsen)
    Henrik_Madsen: Guy Delisle has based his graphic novel on his own experiences from North Korea - it is definitely also worth a read.
  4. 00
    Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng (booklove2)
    booklove2: Main characters have similar personalities, also they both battle regimes.
  5. 00
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Anonymous user)
  6. 00
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (aethercowboy)
  7. 01
    Number9Dream by David Mitchell (clfisha)
    clfisha: OK not really alike except in tone. A rollicking good adventure and playful narrative structure (Mitchell is more experimental).
  8. 13
    The Cider House Rules by John Irving (suniru)
    suniru: Although the settings are wildly different,the central figure in both books is the "head boy" in an orphanage. Also, "identity" is central to both books.

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Showing 1-5 of 172 (next | show all)
This book is good the way "Henderson the Rain King" , or Catch-22, or Orhan Pamuk's "Snow" is good. Like these novels, "The Orphan Master's Son" balances on a knife-edge between high tragedy and farce. No matter how unbelievable the action in the novel is, I still feel the humanity of Jun Doh, the same way I felt Yossarian's or Henderson's or Ka's. I feel pity for him. I want him to triumph. Through this obviously fictional character I feel more connected with real people, which is what the best fiction can do. The writing is so vivid that I feel the humanity of even the most minor characters, such as a girl who sinks into the water and drowns after a bungled kidnapping attempt, while her abductors are left holding her cell phone with the girl's mother on the other end. It's great, great writing whenever an author can wrench something so vivid and harrowing from a 1-paragraph encounter. Johnson does it again and again.

But four stars, not five. I don't want to go so far as to call this story "appropriative," because I believe fiction writers have the right to imagine themselves into any character and any culture, however remote from their own. But please, don't call it real. Don't pretend that the fictional Dear Leader has anything to do with the real Dear Leader. Don't veer between the ridiculous--scenes where the protagonist willingly suffers a shark bite to make for a better cover story, for example--and scenes cribbed from actual historical events. Better to be altogether ridiculous--like Catch 22. Joseph Heller had a lot to say about the inhumanity of war, but he never claimed Catch-22 was historically accurate.

I've been a little dismayed by the author interviews for the book for this reason, as well as the "discussion questions" at the back of my book that ask me to ponder what I've learned about North Korea after reading this novel. However much I think Adam Johnson is an extraordinary writer, I don't think he should be implying that his book is anything other than pure fiction. Conflating fact and fiction can cast doubt on the real, and North Korea is already unbelievable enough. There is already enough fiction ("lying?") going on in modern memoirs, to the point where North Korean memoirists might have trouble being believed, since their experiences are so extreme. It would have been far better if Johnson had not made a single claim of doing more than writing a terrific novel. Isn't that enough? ( )
  poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
Most people, I think, if asked to list the “Top Ten Worst Governments in the World,” would find a spot for North Korea’s somewhere in their first five choices. Even then, however, the problem with trying to rank North Korea within such a list is that everyday life there is still pretty much a black hole to casual observers. But novels such as Adam Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner The Orphan Master’s Son often shed enough light on these black holes that outsiders are able to study the horrors within them.

The orphan master’s son in question is Park Jun Do, a boy partially responsible for the relative wellbeing of the orphan boys under his “father’s” authority. Jun Do, in fact, by deciding where to place the boys in state-mandated work details, ultimately decides which of them are to live longest and under exactly what circumstances most of them will die. Orphans in North Korea do not have a bright future.

But this is only the beginning for Park Jun Do. The boy has certain skills that are valuable enough to the State that his life, may it turn out to be a long one or a short one, is destined to be an interesting one. Before it ends, Jun Do will have spied for his Dear Leader via the tunnels that penetrate well into South Korea; will have kidnapped unsuspecting victims from the beaches of Japan; and will have learned English well enough to serve both as a translator of radio broadcasts and as part of a diplomatic team sent on a special mission to the U.S. And when that U.S. mission ends in humiliating failure, Jun Do’s life really gets interesting.

The Orphan Master’s Son is told in two parts: “The Biography of Jun Do” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” In the second part, Jun Do proves just what a survivor he is, even within a political system in which a citizen can be denounced for the most trivial oversight – a process that most often places its victims into the hands of ruthless interrogators, only to be later carted off to prisons for the rest of their suddenly truncated lives.

Jun Do’s life, challenging and painful as it sometimes is, is an adventure that Adam Johnson fits together like a puzzle for his readers. The author uses three very different narrators to tell Jun Do’s story: a third person narrator for the “biography” portion of the book, a first person narrator in the guise of a rather softhearted State interrogator for much of the second part of the book, and “live” broadcasts via loudspeakers used to spread daily propaganda radio messages to the Dear Leader’s people. Johnson also uses flashbacks to illuminate details about significant events and relationships in Jun Do’s life well after that character’s ultimate fate has been revealed.

That the structure of The Orphan Master’s Son is not a conventional one may require the reader to work a bit harder than usual, but the author tells a truly memorable and shocking story. I highly recommend this prizewinner to anyone curious about what daily life in North Korea might be like. ( )
  SamSattler | Jan 22, 2015 |
This is a really scary and fascinating book. It's a novel, but it fits with all the non-fiction I've red about N. Korea and is very believable, even though conditions there are often unbelievable to a western mindset. Highly recommended. It isn't easy to read because of the brutal conditions and some shifting of narrators, but if you pay attention it's no difficult. It just is not "throw away" fiction. ( )
  laurieindra | Jan 4, 2015 |

This book is so wickedly brilliant that despite its confusing plot and bizarre second half, it is a great read. There are just so many sections which are amazing, especially in the first half of the book. Highly recommend for a somewhat serious read. ( )
  lincolnpan | Dec 31, 2014 |
OK, I finished reading Orphan Master's Son today at midnight - it took me 24 hours to read it. I am pretty disappointed with the ending, it seems like the author could not thought of any better way to finish the book. Though I'm just whining now, the book is great.
I still can't believe some things I've read. I think they'll haunt me in my nightmares.

“Eleven years I procured for those prisons. The uniforms come in children’s sizes, you know. I’ve ordered thousands of them. They even make a half-sized pickax. Do you have children?”

Little boy is growing up an orphan with his mother torn from him on a whim by the Party and with his father alive, but unable to officially recognize him as a son. A famine, that took lives of at least 240 thousands people, was called Arduous March by the Party. The loudspeakers are everywhere, so that no one can forget ideas of Juche, even if you are starving to death.
Some actions of the main hero rise questions, I couldn't understand him fully. But I guess that was the idea of the author, to show mysterious oriental soul.

When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.

The price of human life is 0 bucks 0 cents in this country, and yet somehow people manage to find love, make friends and create a family. I can't get it.
Read more at BookGeek.ru!href> ( )
  otikhonova | Dec 8, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 172 (next | show all)
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Susanne Wells (Nov 1, 2011)

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my sun,
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Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.
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Book description
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
Haiku summary
Disturbing account
Of North Korea under
Kim Jong-Il. Tough stuff.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0812992792, Hardcover)

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012

Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son

When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.

Featured Photographs

Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj
  DPRK soldier
  Air raid sirens
  Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:18 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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