Michael's Reviews > The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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Jul 30, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, coming-of-age, dystopia, survival, communism, north-korea
Read in March, 2012

Very moving story of what it means to be human in a world of North Korean society where Big Brother reigns and life is cheap. Had to let this one sit for a week before reviewing it so I could try to get some perspective.

Like a lot of Holocaust literature, it is not a novel you can recommend without reservation. The main character, Jun Do has had to participate in many reprehensible actions, starting from his boyhood in the orphanage that his father managed and later in his work on a government kidnapping squad as a young man. Yet we root for his burgeoning conscience, growth in ability to empathize with others, and the play of imagination that begins to free him from this mortal coil.

The tale is so macabre and unreal, especially the parts featuring Kim Jong Il, yet it is rendered in such an understated way that it just draws you on by the hand through the darkness toward the light. Johnson never tells you what to feel, but etches your heart nonetheless.

The tone feels very much like Ishiguru to me and inspires the same sort of trust to not be daunted by shadowy hearts of many characters in the tale. At one point Jun Do accompanies a secret negotiation trip to Texas, and a female CIA agent asks him if he knew what being free feels like. His response captures his barriers to becoming fully human:

How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan--that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because there were guards everywhere--that was the purest freedom.
"Are there labor camps here?"
"No", she said.
"Mandatory marriages, forced-criticism sessions, loudspeakers?"
She shook her head.
"Then I'm not sure I could ever feel free here," he said.
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07/10/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King A nice review Michael and your first paragraph states it all:

"Very moving story of what it means to be human in a world of North Korean society where Big Brother reigns and life is cheap. Had to let this one sit for a week before reviewing it so I could try to get some perspective."

North Korea has been too much in the news recently and so I don't feel inclined towards this book.


Michael Lynne wrote: "...North Korea has been too much in the news recently and so I don't feel inclined towards this book. ..."
I understand the reaction. Why put your spirit into the heart of darkness? But seeing how life can try to thrive in the cracks in the sidewalk proves its miracle as much as when unfettered in a well tended garden.


message 3: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Well how lyrically put Michael!


message 4: by Jessika (new)

Jessika What a fantastic review. Our book club is considering this, so I copied a paragraph from your review, so they can make up their own mind. I am going to read it either way.


Michael Jessaka wrote: "What a fantastic review. Our book club is considering this, so I copied a paragraph from your review, so they can make up their own mind. ..."

Thanks for the warm response. I would imagine a number will not live the book because of barriers to empathy, yet there should be plenty of room for fruitful discussion.


message 6: by Jessika (new)

Jessika Michael wrote: "Jessaka wrote: "What a fantastic review. Our book club is considering this, so I copied a paragraph from your review, so they can make up their own mind. ..."

Thanks for the warm response. I would..."


Our group would have a lot of empathy, but some us may not wish to read something so horrible as torture, which I even have problems with.


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