The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
People love to debate the merits of award winning books, and this 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction enters the fray. This reader loved the book, but it hard to exactly explain why. The simplest reason was that I wanted to keep reading….I was interested in the story, not so much the plot which is hard to pin down anyway. This book was creative in an odd, strange, almost magical realism way. What happens might not actually be able to happen in this world, but then again, the story takes place in North Korea, so maybe anything is possible.
The protagonist is Pak Jun Do, a homonym for “John Doe.” He grows up in a work camp for orphans called Long Tomorrows, run by his father. He becomes a soldier, patrolling the murky tunnels under the DMZ, the “demilitarized zone” separating the border between North and South Korea. Later an electrical radar expert, his job is to listen in, on whom is sometimes unclear. He is promoted to chief kidnapper, and some of his targets are those he listened in on, and some not. Exactly who he is kidnapping for is murky, but someone powerful.
He falls in love with Sun Moon, the beautiful wife of the powerful Commander GA, and then becomes the Commander’s doppelganger, or so it appears, one is never quite sure. And this is part of the magical mysterious writing of Adam Johnson’s first novel. This is really a creative tour-de-force, and his knowledge of North Korea and its culture comes largely from his imagination, having visited the country only once. “We have a duty to tell the stories of others, even if we have to invent them” Johnson stated.
When an American woman, rowing solo around the world, is captured by North Korea, Pak Jun Do attempts to put into action a plan to save her, or is he saving Sun Moon?
Adam Johnson is a professor of creative writing at Stanford University.
Review by Larry