Monday, January 9, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

I'm calling it now--The Orphan Master's Son is the best book of 2012.  Sure, we're only nine days into the new year, but you're going to have to take my word on this declaration.  I haven't loved a book this much in about five years, and Adam Johnson's new novel now ranks among my favorite books ever. It really is that spectacular.

The DMZ (above ground)
The Orphan Master's Son is set in North Korea, a location that is so foreign that it itself becomes the dominant player in this story of resilience and adversity.  I happened to be finishing OMS on the night that the news announced Kim Jong Il's death, and the experience of watching the North Korean people mourn their Dear Leader with this book fresh in my mind was a bit uncanny.  The book makes clear how the North Korean people are trained from infancy to value the state over self, and the Dear Leader is the state.  The wailing mourners make sense in this context; their entire world was unhinged with Kim Jong Il's death.  It's a fascinating subject and location.

The Dear Leader
What's the story, though?  Jun Do is, as the title suggests, the son of the orphan master.  His mother, vanished, was a singer.  Because he grows up among the orphans, though, everyone assumes that he too is an orphan.  He is put to work doing the jobs that orphans are given, the lowliest tasks in the country.  Eventually Jun Do is trained as a soldier and sent to patrol the pitch black tunnels running under the DMZ and over to South Korea. He learns to fight without seeing.  From there, Jun Do is recruited to become a professional kidnapper, stealing unlucky citizens from Japan.  He accomplishes his missions, but he also glimpses the world outside of North Korea, where the electricity doesn't shut off in the evenings, where people are free to talk and play and go where they please.  Jun Do, though, returns to his homeland.
Koreans mourning Kim Jong Il's

He works as an intelligence officer on a fishing vessel.  He travels to Texas as part of a delegation meeting with a Senator.  He suffers in a forced labor camp.  And Jun Do, the ultimate John Doe character, transforms himself into a completely different person and finds his way into Kim Jong Il's inner circle.
Author Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son is a thriller, an epic adventure story, a cultural critique, a love story, a story of hope and transformation.  It is remarkable for its vibrant characters and plot, but it's also a literary book.  This is a book into which you can happily lose yourself for a week, and about which you'll think for weeks afterward.  Adam Johnson has written something brilliant.  The Orphan Master's Son is one of those books where readers band together to share their love.  I can't wait for everyone to read this book, and luckily it goes on sale tomorrow, Tuesday, January 10th.


  1. I have heard good reviews but I am interested in knowing about the content. Does it contain foul language, explicit sex, etc? I believe that we should not just review the story but also rate the content. There are alot of people out there that want a good read but not fill their mind with smut. Any comments on this book?

  2. Thank you for your input. To be honest, I am not offended by foul language and therefore don't really focus on it when reading a book (and our blog itself regularly features some profanity). I can tell you that many of the books that we review on our blog do contain adult content and mature subject matter and ORPHAN MASTER'S SON, while in no way lewd, is set in an extreme locale and does contain torture, kidnapping, and other adult subject matter. I appreciate your point of view, but the intention of this blog is to highlight books we think are worth reading and we have no plans to limit or edit reviews based on language or sexual content.

  3. For some reason this book reminded me most of "100 Years of Solitude". Not in terms of plot, but tone. It is told in a quick, matter of fact tone that makes even the most gruesome scenes feel whimsical. I have no idea whether it is an accurate portrayal of N Korea. But I suspect that most readers are less interested in geopolitics, and more interested in a very different kind of story, and on that it delivers. This book immerses you in a different, often absurd world that I found fascinating.