The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson: A Review

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An “Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012, and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

For anyone who keeps up with the literary fashion and enjoys a faraway setting, you might feel the pressure to read this much-talked-about book. So, I did.  After some time on the library’s waiting list, I finally received this novel and started immediately since it couldn’t be renewed. With a little one running around, I managed to finish this book in about three weeks–around six hours total.

PROS:

  1. This novel brings North Korea to life in a fast-paced fiction fashion. We all know that N Korea is that place with totalitarian control and nukes, but do we know much beyond that? This novel showed me just how extensive the totalitarian government is, and how it can stay that way (for instance, it is not just  the individual who is threatened with labor camp; it is the entire family). In particular, I learned how the propaganda effectively manipulates the minds of people to make them think they are working for the greater good; that America is the great, capitalist enemy; their Dear Leader, their god, really has their best interest at heart.
  2. It’s a well written story. The book takes a shift in the second half where it constantly switches narrators; some (according to reviews) find this hard to follow, but for you advanced readers out there, you will enjoy such technique!

CONS:

  1. It might bring N Korea to life a little too well. I know, I know. This is the world we live in. But,  Johnson takes it too far. Imagine Orwell’s 1984 on steroids. After reading large amounts of disturbing and dystopian literature, I can do a fairly good job of turning on the “desensitize button” while reading. Even this book bothered me. The torture scenes were too descriptive, reoccurring, and long-lasting. The Orphan Master’s Son is certainly not for the faint of heart.
  2. As mentioned earlier, the changing viewpoint may be frustrating for some readers.
  3. No redemptive element. This can be argued, but, to me, I saw the supposed redemptive element to be weak and unfulfilled at the novel’s end.

CONCLUSION:

  • As a Christian, I appreciate a better understanding of what North Koreans (or any people group) are enduring daily.  However, I would probably veer like-minded readers in a different direction. The book is certainly worthy in the literary sense, but since our precious time is limited, I think a more edifying reading can be found (yes, even with N Korea!).  After doing some research, I probably would pick up Escape from Camp 14 instead. And, I also noticed that World magazine gave a tremendous write-up for Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.

  • Want brief summaries of more N Korean books? Check out this excellent article.
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