Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson, Random House January 2012

...a super first novel but might not be for everyone

I had considered not writing a review of this book because I found it to be so strange that I could not imagine recounting the implausible plot but I just could not get the story out of my head.

So here goes.  The story is set in modern day North Korea, a weird society if ever there was one.  Pak Jun Do (emphasis on the John Do pronunciation) is the son of a man who runs a school for orphans.  In order to not show preference Pak’s father essentially ignores him.  His mother had been taken to Pyongyang to serve the government.  The government recognizes that Pak is a loyal citizen of the state and singles him out for training as a professional kidnapper.  Evidently it is not unusual for North Korea to capture people if the state needs their services – need a plumber capture one from a coastal Japanese town.  Pak is trained as an English translator and  loyally serves as  a radio operator on a fishing boat listening to transmissions from long distance rowers and the space shuttle.  After some strange interactions with the US Navy Pak is chosen for a North Korean mission to the US (told you it was a strange story).  The mission does not go well for North Korea and Pak is sentenced to prison.  Even stranger events unfold from there.   Pak is reinvented with an entirely new identity and falls in love with the wife of the man who he replaces as one of North Korea’s heroes.

What for me was so enchanting about this story was the goodness of the lead character in contrast to the soul deadening state of North Korea.  Pak was a selfless person who completely believed in the North Korean state and until he found love was willing to sacrifice himself for that state.  The transformation he goes through is thoroughly enchanting if not heartbreaking in the end.  The story is told with Pak’s narration but also interspersed are propaganda broadcasts from the state.  The author’s ability to recreate the North Korean state – the story includes casual horrific violence, incredible hunger and starvation, torture and interrogation – is memorable.  Truly has to be the worst country in the world ruled by a mad man (hope the mad man’s son is an improvement for these poor people).  The author who is a creative writing prof in California describes this genre as trauma narrative which is an apt description of a story that not only tells of traumatic events but traumatizes the reader as well.  This story is a little too unusual to be a great novel but it leaves me excited to see what Adam Johnson writes next, this is a super first novel (but not for everyone) and he is a writer to watch.

I read a copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

1 comment:

Zibilee said...

I have this book on audio, and I have been reading varying reports. It sounds like this is one that I need to get to soon. I haven't read much about Korea, and would like to know more. Thanks for the great review today, Kathy!