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The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

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

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Lost in Translation

Purge by Sofi Oskanen

Please look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

Purge by Sofi Oksanen  was heavier in content than expected; I skimmed the blurb and wasn’t necessarily expecting historical fiction. However, I always like an unanticipated journey when reading a novel and this novel did not fail to disappoint.

Aliide is an elderly woman living on the edge of a village in an Estonian forest. She challenges the stereotype of the elderly right from the beginning by showing how alert she is to ploys used by gangs to rob and harass people. One morning she finds a distressed young girl, Zara, in her garden. Zara seems to be tainted by involvement in a gang; is she there as a decoy for a more sinister crime?

As the novel progresses the stories of both women are revealed with Aliide’s story taking the reader to both WW2 and Soviet Estonia. I’ve studied a reasonable amount of history but I had never thought exclusively about Estonia. The fact that this novel describes a moment in history from an Estonian point of view was really interesting. I really got the sense that prior to the war the country was not purely a homogenous Estonian population. Rather it seemed to be a crossroads with people from all surrounding countries drawn there for work including an established German community in the novel.

I also found it interesting that at times of difficulty the old Finnish marrka was used on the black market as a trustworthy ‘hard currency’. Furthermore, Finland was seen as ‘the west’ and many characters would lament that they wished they had left for Finland when they had the chance.

The poverty and suffering in the countryside as a legacy of communism is rather uncomfortable at times. Issues of young people’s migration to cities and other countries also permeates the story. Interestingly, on a recent trip to Helsinki I was quite aware of the large number of young Estonians in the hospitality and service industries.

For the most part the novel is a rather bleak read and some scenes are quite uncomfortably violent. The broader themes of the novel encompass both women’s stories but I really do not want to give them away. Be warned that the book description on Amazon has a spoiler.

One thing that let the book down was the implied Estonian nuances about life in some of the longer passages of description. The whole novel was very readable but someone with an insight into the unsaid parts of Estonian culture may have found some parts of the novel more satisfying.

When I felt I was missing some cultural knowledge in Purge, it reminded me of another book in translation I read recently – Please look after Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin.  I was initially drawn to the mystery of what happened to the elderly family matriarch when she disappeared in the Seoul subway. The story is told from multiple viewpoints with different members of the family revealing to the reader their private lives and surfacing feelings of guilt about not noticing Mother more.

I enjoy reading family dramas but this one just did not captivate me enough. I felt the writing a bit stilted which may have been due to the translation. I can be quite forgiving about this but my main feeling throughout was that there was too much cultural understanding embedded in the novel which made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I have read quite a few books set in Asia – including a few set in Korea – so I am quite open minded about the cultural differences. In this book the parents lived in the countryside which may have added a different layer of difficulty to the story as they were quite old fashioned in their ways. The lack of communication and awareness between the family members was also something I could not relate to easily. I imagine this book was popular in Korea but I just found it too difficult to become fully absorbed in the story.

Purge: 4 Stars
Please look after Mother: 3 stars

More about Korea I have read:

A Step from Heaven by An Na – A short and poignant exploration of the Korean immigrant experience in the USA. It is narrated by the family’s young daughter.  The sadness and cruelty in the story really brings a tear to the eye. Published about 10 years ago. It’s a shame that vampires, magic and angels have pushed this sort of YA novel to the margins.

All Woman and Springtime by B.W.  Jones – About two female orphans in North Korea. The story branches out to South Korea and beyond. It really made me think about the North Korean diaspora.

Drifting House:  Krys Lee – An interesting collection of stories about family, duty and the struggle between the generations when western influence abound. I particularly liked the sedate friendship that developed between two retirees in the USA.

1000 Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout – I read and loved this when it was first published in 1999. It takes the reader back to the partition between North and South, and the current DMZ.

If you know any other great novels in translation please let me know. Any Estonian suggestions are welcome!