The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson: A review

This highly praised novel by Adam Johnson, which ultimately was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction earlier this year, is confusing and not easy to define or categorize. It is in part a thriller with a bit of romantic love ladled on to sweeten it, but, overall, it is a depiction of a society of such horror that if one-tenth of what Johnson shows us is actually fact or even based on fact, then North Korea must truly be the worst place on Earth. Indeed, the phrase Hell on Earth comes to mind.

It is a society in which truth is whatever the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il says it is. One's identity is assigned by Kim Jong-il. In Kim's fantasy world, North Korea is a paradise which is coveted by every other nation on Earth, especially by their arch enemies Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In this fantasy, the people in those other countries are starving and he generously sends food aid to them.

How did this society come to exist? How did one man, one family gain and keep such power over an entire people? Those are not really questions for this book. For the purposes of this story, we just have to accept that all of this exists.

The Orphan Master's Son is Pak Jun Do who is raised in the Long Tomorrows orphanage in Chongjin, North Korea. (That name, by the way, a homonym of "John Doe" seems wholly appropriate for this character.) He believes himself to be the son of the master of the orphanage and of a beautiful singer who was "stolen" to Pyongyang, but there is no real proof for his belief.

A famine devastates the country and the orphanage which is eventually stripped bare of everything that could possibly be rendered edible. The orphans are dispersed. Jun Do is conscripted into the army where he is sent to patrol the dark tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone. He distinguishes himself in this limited world and comes to the attention of his superiors who assign him to a unit that kidnaps Japanese citizens in night raids. 

At some point, he is selected to be taught English, and then is assigned to a job on a fishing boat where he listens to foreign radio transmissions and translates them. Ultimately, he is assigned as translator on a "diplomatic mission" to Texas! There he makes friends with a senator's wife and meets a CIA agent named Wanda. This incident contains some of the most darkly humorous writing of the entire book as the Texans struggle to understand the Koreans and the Koreans seek to one-up the Texans in everything.

This is a description of the first half of the book which is told in fairly straightforward linear fashion. I found it an engrossing tale of a society about which I know little. Then I went on to the second part of the book.

It transpires that Pak Jun Do no longer exists. He was sent to a labor camp after his Texas adventure and there he met the diabolical Commander Ga, who is a national hero and is Kim Jong-il's rival for the affections of an actress called Sun Moon. Commander Ga is Sun Moon's husband. The nonperson Pak Jun Do is in love with Sun Moon and had had her image tattooed on his chest when he was on the fishing boat. He clashes with Commander Ga in a dark tunnel of the labor camp, but he was well-trained in tunnel combat and he managed to kill Commander Ga, whereupon he dressed himself in Ga's clothes and "became" Commander Ga. (At least, this is the way I understand this event now. At the time I was reading it, I found it totally confusing and couldn't tell who was who. I frequently had an impulse to smash my Kindle!) 

This second half of the book then becomes a tale of Jun Do/Commander Ga's efforts to get Sun Moon and her two children out of the country. It is a labyrinthine tale of intrigue and torture. Mostly torture. I found this very hard to read.

Although this is a very dark and tragic tale, it does have its humorous moments. I've already mentioned the trip to Texas and the clash of cultures that ensued, but also we get glimpses of the uses of 
loudspeakers that project official versions of the news and of Commander Ga and Sun Moon's story to the populace. These stories are downright farcical and seem ultimately out of place in a tale of such suffering. And yet, apparently, it is one of the means by which the government controls the population.

At one point, close to the end of the book, Jun Do/Commander Ga reflects:
If he had learned anything about the real Commander Ga by living in his clothes and sleeping in his bed, it was the fact that this place had made him. In North Korea, you weren't born, you were made...
That's what I take away from this book: In this society, you aren't born. You don't possess a family or connections. You are whatever the state makes you, whatever the Dear Leader says you are. If you are given a new identity, that is who you must become if you want to survive. All citizens are actors, playing the part they are assigned.

It is a chilling and utterly depressing tale.


  1. Extraordinary account of life in perhaps the most secretive nation in the world. Some of the tales are so shocking it's hard to believe it can be true. Johnson tells it in a way that is at the same time humorous and astonishing

    1. He is a very talented writer to be able to bring all of this to life. I read that he did do extensive research, including a trip to Pyongyang to get the atmosphere and layout of the place.

  2. I have been hearing good things about this, but not sure I like it with the depressing theme.

    THANKS for your great review.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved July Edition. I am in the list as #75.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry

    1. It certainly is not an easy read, Elizabeth, but Johnson is a very good writer and the book is masterful in its execution. There is a lot to admire here, but it's not something I would recommend for summer vacation reading.


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