The Orphan Master's Son
By Adam Johnson

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Rating: Harrowing
3.5 Stars

First Published: 2012
Pages: 480

Review © 2014 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Modern Fiction, Literature, Thriller



The Orphan Master’s Son is an astonishing novel by Adam Johnson that takes place in one of the most bizarre places on earth, North Korea.  As a fan of science fiction novels, I always enjoy well drawn worlds that are very different or even completely alien from the world I’m used to.  The Orphan Master’s Son describes a totalitarian world that is alien beyond belief but in this case the novel is based on the actual conditions that exist today in North Korea.   So while many scenes may seem a bit unbelievable, the reader is advised to keep an open mind.  After the conclusion of the novel, the author wisely adds an epilogue describing how much of the story is based on real events or eyewitness accounts and the reality is well beyond what most would imagine.  The combination of a thrilling story with a startling basis in reality is perhaps what landed this novel the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Before continuing to review this novel, I have to give a serious warning.  This novel is not for the faint of heart and certainly not for kids.  It contains horrific violence and gut wrenching scenes.  While there is a story of true love within this novel and scenes of friendship and compassion; the violence, atrocities, and overwhelming environment of fear make much of the novel bleak and depressing.

The Orphan Master’s Son is told through multiple viewpoints.  Much of the novel tells the story of a loyal citizen of the state, Jun Do, who manages to rise from the humblest of origins to a remarkably varied career.    He begins life in a state orphanage under conditions of extreme exploitation and abuse.  His father, the master of the orphanage, treats him as one of the orphans except that he has the added responsibility of helping hand out work assignments with the knowledge that some of the assignments are essentially death sentences.  The novel follows Jun Do’s life as he becomes a tunnel soldier, a kidnapper of Japanese citizens, an intelligence officer assigned to a fishing vessel, and finally, a member of a diplomatic mission to the United States.  After the diplomatic mission leads to embarrassment, Jun Do is sent to one of the harshest work camps which reshapes his outlook on life.  Then an extraordinary turn of events lead to Jun Do finding freedom and love with one major question, how long can he grasp freedom in a country where freedom is completely unknown. 

There is also a first person narrative from an interrogator which doesn’t start until half way through the novel.  The interrogator is tasked with extracting the “true” biographies of people who have dared to cross the state.  He tries to uncover the true story of Commander Ga and his wife who happens to be the most famous actress in the land.  At the same time, the state releases the official story of Commander Ga and his wife as a series of state broadcasts which blare from speakers throughout the country.

The writing in this novel is generally excellent.  The characters are well drawn and built up carefully over time.  The action and violence is intense and gripping.  While the novel bounces around and is not always easy to follow, everything comes together towards the end as Jun Do finds he must risk everything when he launches a desperate plan to protect those he loves from the all-powerful state.

The Orphan Master’s Son is highly recommended for anyone who wants a glimpse into a hidden part of the world that contains the most terrifying human rights violations imaginable.  Normally one would be relieved that this is a fiction novel but in this case the reality is much too close to the fiction and may even be worse.  For a unique thriller with extreme violence that also contains bursts of hope and love, The Orphan Master’s Son should not be missed.