Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson's thrilling epic, The Orphan Master's Son, is set in contemporary North Korea. It begins in the Long Tomorrows orphanage and follows the life of one remarkable man who chose a martyr's name for himself: Pak Jun Do. Jun Do adapts to whatever situation is thrust upon him, going from starving orphan to tunnel soldier to international kidnapper to sailor to prison mine inmate to impersonating a high-ranking public official. He is a heroic figure, facing the most brutal hardships with dignity and integrity.

I was totally enthralled by the Random House audio recording [19.5 hours] narrated mostly by Tim Kang. Some segments of the story are told in first person by a young interrogator/torturer who considers himself a biographer. There are also propaganda broadcasts throughout, which lighten the story with touches of humour. In the audio production, two additional narrators, Josiah D. Lee and James Kyson Lee, provide contrast for these sections.

"Good morning, Citizens! In your housing blocks, on your factory floors, gather 'round your loudspeakers for today's news: the North Korean table-tennis team has just defeated its Somali counterpart in straight sets! [...] Don't forget, it is improper to sit on the escalators leading into the subways. The Minister of Defense reminds us that the deepest subways in the world are for your civil-defense safety, should the Americans sneak-attack again. No sitting!"

There are scenes of cruelty and torture, but there is also beauty, loyalty and love. The sense of place is strong, the plot is lively and there is a large cast of interesting characters. I am grateful to Adam Johnson for giving me a peek into what it might be like to have been born in one of the most oppressive countries in the world, but especially for introducing me to unforgettable Pak Jun Do.

Readalikes: The Lizard Cage (Karen Connelly) although it does not have the same epic scope. A good read-along is Pyongyang, Guy Delisle's true account in comics format of three months spent working in North Korea. The children playing accordions in Johnson's novel could be the very same girls depicted on the cover of Delisle's travelogue.

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