Ian's Reviews > The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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Feb 16, 12

Read from January 31 to February 16, 2012

What strikes me as most impressive about The Orphan Master's Son is that Adam Johnson, an American novelist, has (as far as I can tell) successfully depicted the shadowy world of North Korea as though it were his native land. He describes the totalitarian country's orphanages, prisons, fishing boats, etc. as though he himself had been privy to such experiences.

I found Johnson to be particularly careful when dealing with oppressive propaganda which is portrayed mostly in the daily "news" (i.e., whatever "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il demands his citizens know and believe) broadcasts from the mandatory speakers installed in all citizens' dwellings. His tone is never one of mockery and, if anything, the story progresses with compassion for those living in constant fear of imprisonment (or worse).

The book might be confusing to some readers as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, and one style to another without warning. In an interview of Adam Johnson by author Richard Price, Price describes the book as a "collision of many genres: bildungsroman, prison narrative, sea story, romantic drama, escape thriller, comic picaresque, Korean heroic opera," and Johnson comments that he sees his book as a "trauma narrative," in which a survivor of traumatic experiences tells stories that are similarly disjointed and that "bend and mix genres as characters attempt to patch their stories back together using the stories they find around them." This is one of the most unusual, riveting, touching and unforgettable books I've read, and I highly recommend it.

One final thought on the book: While at times I found it amusing that the North Korean citizens in the book---or perhaps the citizens of any real-life nation not ruled by democracy---would say that theirs is the "greatest nation in the world," we here in the U.S. certainly suffer from a similar myopia. Our very own citizens and leaders expound the same superlative knowing full well that our country’s education, economy, health care, income equality, etc. are far from the top of the list.
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02/04/2012 page 176
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