Johnson, Adam. The Orphan Master’s Son

Doubleday, $32.95

“Brave New World meets 1984 in the DPRK”

Adam Johnson’s North Korea is hell. In a country foreign to readers, a challenge lies in deciphering where fact ends and fiction begins. It’s a culture where it’s more important to get the story straight than to tell the truth. Yet it provides the setting for an exquisitely crafted tale, a love story and an examination of the human spirit, and a novel that more than meets the promise of its own ambition.

Pak Jun Do thinks he’s the son of the master of ‘Long Tomorrows’, a work camp for orphans, because only a true father “could take a boy’s shoes in winter … could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.” His beautiful mother was stolen to Pyongyang. By the time Jun Do makes it to Pyongyang himself, he is wearing another’s clothes. By then, he has fought as a tunnel soldier, kidnapped foreigners, and worked as a spy on a fishing boat.

Someone said to write a successful, engaging novel, you must put your hero somewhere evocative, and make them suffer. Jun Do suffers for North Korea, over and over, and he suffers for Johnson’s brilliant novel.

His adventures take him to Texas. On his return, tainted by exposure to the west, Jun Do is thrown into prison camp. And that is the end of Jun Do, although he reappears as Commander Ga, an identity he has adopted necessarily, and without premeditation.

Johnson’s characters are deftly sketched, and North Korea is portrayed so believably it’s difficult to believe the author has only visited once.

Reviewed March 2012