It’s not often that a book makes me reconsider my Top 7 reads – but this one has. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, The Orphan Master’s Son is such an awesome book – in the true sense of the word – that I feel any review could never do it justice. All I really need to say is this: make sure you read this book! It’s a fast-paced and intriguing thriller, mixed with romance, and injected with satire. I was transfixed right until the gripping conclusion.
Set in North Korea during the communist regime of dictator Kim Jong-il, this book provides a fascinating look at the authoritarian, repressive society that few outsiders will ever glimpse. Actually, it features the ‘Dear Leader’ as a significant character in the novel. The main character is an orphan named Jun Do – a play on the English name John Doe, which refers to the ‘everyman’ in our society. His life has been fashioned by the author, Adam Johnson, following years of research into personal accounts of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – mostly from those who have defected. This is a world where powerless people are kidnapped, murdered, or made to disappear. There are prisons, work camps and torture chambers. People live in constant fear of not seeing their loved ones tomorrow; children rehearse in preparation for interrogation, so they know how to denounce family members should the time come.
Johnson writes in an interview, “Much is written about the political, military and economic aspects of the DPRK, but it was always the personal dimension that interested me. I wondered how families huddled under such repression and how people maintained their identities against the tide of propaganda, and whether lovers, despite the dangers, shared their intimate thoughts. So, from the beginning, my goal in this book was to capture a single character that felt fully human to me.”
The novel is structured in two main parts. In both sections, the various chapters are interspersed with sections of propaganda, taken mostly from actual Workers’ Party newspapers. Some of these are quite funny in parts, and provide some relief from a story that is, for the most part, terrifying. “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.”
In a book that could be entirely depressing, it’s the human relationships – the love and sacrifice – that give this book its soul. For those of you who have read A Fine Balance, I could see some similarities between the two novels. Both books serve as reminders that innocent, faceless victims of oppression are also human beings who love, and are loved.