Bookworm in Bangkok: The Orphan Master’s Son

A Book Review by Stefanie Field

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. An Eastlit review by Stefanie FieldThis month, I’ll be raving about another great book.  Adam Johnson masterfully creates a chilling world based on the simple existence of North Korea.  Although his years of research provide a significant amount of speculation or inaccuracy, he shows a brilliant skill of re-creating this Hermit Kingdom.  I’m not going to say this book was great because it details the human rights violations or irrational behavior of the Kim regime.  That is knowledge readers should have prior to going into this book.  Instead, it explored what satellite images and graduate thesis papers could not: human connections in a country which intentionally steals them away from you.  Of course, this book is fiction and should not be taken as a true portrayal of life for ordinary North Koreans.  Rather, Adam Johnson combines the thrilling actions of the Kim regime with great satirical and tender moments.

The Orphan Master’s Son introduces you to the biography of Pak Jun Do, the son of a father who manages an orphanage and a mother who was stolen to Pyongyang because of her beauty.  The trials of his life in North Korea are often met with absurd and circumstantial moments that will lead him to become the rival of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.  He experiences the army’s training in the lightless tunnels, the depths of a submarine, the oppression of a prison mine, and the affections for an actress by posing as her husband, a highly respected Commander of North Korea.  His concept of family and friends and duty are examined as he manages to survive as best as an orphan can in this country.

Johnson details North Korea, in a contemporary situation, to be quite like the Orwellian world of 1984.  With every human encounter, there is “doublespeak” and blatant censorship which crosses the fine line of brainwashing.  Much of the novel reminds me of George Orwell’s scene in which a Ministry has announced the deduction of individual rations for chocolate.  Yet within the same day, the announcement declares it had actually increased the rations to the same amount and this statement is passively accepted by all citizens.  Johnson’s description of North Korea is alike on many levels, with the Kim regime rewriting the history and the present for its benefit.  It does send chills to understand how this environment is derived from present-day facts.

Although the writing is not particularly impressive, I was enthralled by the different viewpoints that Johnson characterized.  Of course, there is Jun Do, the “John Doe” of North Korea.  There is also the official state government, spoken through the loudspeakers and radios that are fixated in every corner of every household and neighborhood.  And lastly, there is the “Interrogator,” a Pyongyang-native who begins to question his own life after vicariously living through the memories of Commander Ga’s impostor.  At various points, the exact same scene is described differently by all three perspectives.  It seems very ridiculous, but then again, you’re not surprised.  Utilizing this with the interactions of the characters, the book remains unpredictable and almost unbelievable.  For example, imagine feeding yourself to a shark because it’s your best option but not your only one.

I would argue that the character development in this novel is very subtle.  Sun Moon, the acclaimed actress of the nation, and the Interrogator (or in his words, the Biographer) dramatically find their lives changed by the experiences of Pak Jun Do.  Yet, their internal revelations are quiet until the end.  More than the characters, the scenes strongly stand out in my mind.  In addition to offering myself to a shark, I vicariously sift through a boot for a broken toe, witness a boy drowning in a river, watch the blood drain from hopeless prisoners, and eat tiger tacos in Texas.  And then there’s the peaches!  No longer will I ever relish a can of Georgia peaches in the same light again.

Needless to say, I give this book 5/5 stars.

★★★★★

This novel is disturbingly good, but offers a lot to the reader.  It is adventure, coming-of-age, thriller, romance, and comedy.  How can you not be interested in sharks, tiger tacos, and North Korea?  It will leave you with a great impression like Orwell’s 1984, but you won’t be able to settle your mixed emotions on Pak Jun Do for quite some time.  I would strongly recommend this book to readers of world politics, and I advise checking out some of Adam Johnson’s interviews in which he offers insight to who Jun Do really is, and why he’s actually more similar to his fellow North Koreans than he thinks.

Stefanie Field is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Relations in Bangkok.  She is a lover of books and hopes to promote reading culture in Thailand.

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