“The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson


What’s it about?

Heartbreaking, beautifully crafted and surprisingly funny, this novel tells the story of everyman Pak Jun Do’s life in North Korea. Split into two parts, the first section focuses on Jun Do’s formative years and is an adventure through the underclass of North Korea. The novel begins with Jun Do’s story as an orphan and follows him through various adventures as he fails upwards from one career to the next, from military training and fighting in dark combat tunnels, to undercover missions to kidnap Japanese beachgoers and translating intercepted radio transmissions aboard a fishing vessel. The book certainly takes a few bizarre turns but it is never short of entertaining. The second part focuses in on the capital Pyongyang with the life of our protagonist taking an interesting twist, he gets up close with North Korea’s only actress, the military elite and even Dear Leader himself.

Worth reading because:

A crazy mix of a dystopian future, coming of age drama, eclectic thriller and undying love story, this original novel is told partly (and amusingly) through the loud speakers of the North Korean regime and it was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction. It’s an absolute page-turner and at 464 pages is no slim feat, but I barely noticed all those pages racing by as I devoured it word by delicious word.

Any other books by this author worth reading?

I haven’t read any other books by Adam Johnson but for those fascinated by North Korea and perhaps wanting to sift through what is and isn’t fictionalised in The Orphan Master’s Son, The Guardian suggests a few non-fiction works such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang, about a nine-year-old boy sent to a camp or Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick which tells the stories of six residents of Chongjin, I’ll be reading the latter very soon.

Choice Cuts:

When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.

The loudspeakers called the famine an Arduous March, but that voice was piped in from Pyongyang. Jun Do had never heard anyone in Chongjin call it that. What was happening to them didn’t need a name-it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust.

Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous.


What did you think of The Orphan Master’s Son?