Pak Jun Do believes he is special. Growing up in a North Korean orphanage is only circumstantial; his father must be the orphan master. The severe beatings are proof he receives no favoritism. Jun Do also knows he is special when he is chosen as a tunnel commander, a kidnapper and a spy. Fortune must shine on him in the labour camp as surely, unlike the other prisoners, he will be released soon.
Told by both Jun Do and an unnamed progressive interrogator, The Orphan Master’s Son will make you wonder if fortune is always a good thing.
First Impressions: I was really keen to read this novel based on all the fantastic reviews I had seen. However, I found it really hard to get into at first and didn’t really see the point to the story. Suddenly, at about page 98, something clicked and I was hooked.
Highlights: This novel made me want to read more about North Korea. I knew about the Japanese kidnappings from university studies but this novel made me rethink it all with a new perspective. I also recall hearing about all the prettiest girls being sent to Pyongyang but again the novel made me reconsider this information. Adam Johnson does incredibly well at underlying the reasons why individuals don’t defect when given the opportunity; it is ingrained in the North Korean psyche. Similar to this are the vague references to punishments characters have had to endure; their crimes are not revealed and people don’t think to ask or explain. I thought the scene when one of the characters explains to his son that they will always be holding hands in their heart if they have to denounce one another quite unforgettable and the haunting absence of a photo of the Dear Leader in one room Jun Do enters lingered with me.
If I was an editor: I would wonder if Kim Song-Il should feature as a character. Pak could still move within the upper echelons of North Korea without a personality being imposed on the mysterious leader himself. Despite this, Adam Johnson took a sensible and measured approach to the Great Leader’s character.
Overall: A story I really liked but found it difficult to love. Someone told me to vision it as a documentary reel and upon reflection this is great advice.
The Orphan Master’s Son: 4 stars