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Review: Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son

Published 2012. ISBN 9780812992793

Use your imagination only for the future, never on the present of the past. Do not try to picture people's faces - you will despair if they don't become clear. (pg. 150)

I've been mulling over all day as to how I'm going to write this review. I really want to do the book justice without being overly gushy to the point where there's no point in actually reviewing it. I first found out about this book when I was searching for books about North Korea (get to that later) and found out that it's actually the 2013 Pulitzer winner for Fiction. So the bar was set quite high. 

The book is about an orphan (I'll leave his name out because it's kind of hard to explain) living in DPRK under Kim Jong Il. He, like everyone around him, is an obedient machine of the state who is numb to the repression, fear, and secrecy. Through his experiences, he is able to experience all the dark side of the bureaucratic system; this Big Brother is present in every horrific event and seemingly in every character's thoughts. A lot of the events are closely based on what has really happened, such as kidnapping of Japanese citizens, defections, and political tension with the U.S. Of course, Kim Jong Il makes a few notable appearances. The style of the book is interesting because in the later part, the narration changes from the main character to someone on the other side of the government. 

I think what's amazing about this book is that as you read, you gradually begin to feel that the setting of North Korea isn't really a central element for the book. Rather, it's just a backdrop to the life of this character who is coming to terms with who he is as a person and what he believes it means to be human. Obviously his experiences are unique because of the setting, but in a way, the book suggests that what's more important is what's shared: the idea that love is universal and transcends beyond all that.  (And - aren't we all brainwashed in some way?) I really love the main character. He's definitely a complicated one. The reader gets to see him transform from someone who stoically accepts his fate to someone who questions what is right from wrong. Everything that happens to him and all of his relationships seems to say something bigger: about power, loyalty, or free will. But there's definitely even more symbolism that only a literature professor at Oxford can fully dissect. It's like you know there's more dropped popcorn under the couch but you can't see them well enough to get it. 

I, like a lot of people, am completely obsessed with reading about and watching random documentaries about North Korea. Stories about what happens within it's borders constantly circles in the news. It's this not-knowing that keeps everyone interested. A lot of this speculative curiosity shows through in the book; the nature of the citizens are quite satirised at times and Kim Jong Il is almost portrayed as a comical figure. Then there is the shock-factor driven things that people do and say and how they are people completely detached from 'reality' and oblivious to what we perceive as 'truth'.   

The extremely vivd and often graphic details about what it's like to live in such a violent dictatorial regime is what makes this book such an exciting read is also kind of its downside. While I'm not questioning whether or not they're accurately portrayed, I feel that some of the depictions of what happens at a prisoner's camp or interrogation room seem to drag. While it was an amazing read, I felt a need to put in down for a while after a few chapters. I get that they serve a purpose but there are just so many (the book is about 500+ pages) that it sometimes just felt exhausting. It's the events that deal with human interaction that are really touching, especially when people are kind, selfless, and vulnerable despite being hardened by the system. They seem to challenge what we normally conceive of as parental love or what we relate as romantic love. 

Okay, I think I should probably stop now. Please read the book and let me know what you think!