Ciara's Reviews > The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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Mar 19, 12

bookshelves: read-in-2012
Read in February, 2012

oh hey! this is another book i read based on reviews. i liked it so much more than i thought i would! usually i don't go for books written about men in which the main characters are all men. & i wasn't sure about reading a book set in north korea. i know very little about north korea, aside from the fact that it's a communist dictatorship, & sometimes i have a hard time reading books set in places that i can't easily imagine. but johnson is a really great author. he succeeded at telling a very compelling story about a very complicated protagonist, drawing readers into a world that came alive for a total novice like me & would most likely also be interesting to someone who knows a lot about north korea.

the story focuses on the titular orphan master's son--although questions mount as the narrative wears on as to whether or not the protagonist is perhaps in fact an orphan. his fortunes begin to change after he is pulled off his usual job securing the tunnels beneath the country & tasked with kidnapping japanese citizens. when he thwarts a co-workers attempt at defection, he is given an opportunity to study english. once he becomes proficient, he is stationed on a fishing boat, intercepting & translating radio transmissions. the fishing boat is boarded by u.s. soldiers at one point, who are aware that north korean fishing boats sometimes double as illegal spy boats. an altercation between one of the north korean sailors & an american soldier pulls the orphan master's son into duplicity in anointing a new north korean hero. when the hero defects at the next available opportunity, the orphan master's son volunteers to allow himself to be bitten by a shark in order to sell the north korean government on the story that the fishing boat was boarded by americans again, who threw the hero to sharks. the government asks him to accompany a deployment of attaches & faux ambassadors to the united states & tell them the shark story. he gets chummy with an american intelligence officer who gives him a camera that will enable their secret communications. upon returning to north korea, the orphan master's son is sent to a labor camp.

this is when the second half of the story kicks in, & it gets really weird. i won't go into details (i prefer to only spoil books that kind of suck), but there's all kinds of murder & duplicity & intrigue & competing narratives. some reviews have suggested that once kim jung-il becomes a character in his own right, the authority of the story kind of falls apart. i kind of agree with that. so much of what happens in the second half of the book is just so weird, & involves such high levels of the north korean government, that it kind of reads as farce. this is in contrast to the first half of the book, which is also full of insanity, but is somehow more poignant & even believable. some new characters are also introduced in the second half--characters that are necessary to the story, but difficult to care about or like.

nonetheless, i expect to see this book on quite a few "best of 2012" lists at the end of the year.
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