The Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

can i get some extra stars for this book?

i am struggling to even find the words for this achievement.

let me start with the small stuff, then. this book is set in contemporary North Korea, a country about which (to westerners) relatively zilch is known. i have read both fiction and non-fiction about North Korea, but nothing can be verified without North Koreans themselves telling their stories. if the North Koreans have done such a fine job of propagandizing their own citizens, i have to say i don’t have a lot of faith that i, too, have not been entirely propagandized about North Korea.

so although i believe the author’s assertion that he did a ton of research, and even had some personal experience, of North Korea, i won’t claim that i can be certain of any degree of veracity.

but taking it “merely” as a fiction… i am floored.

the story concerns the life of an orphan lad, Jun Do Pak. he rises, through sometimes improbable (but never impossible) connections to be a man next to Dear Leader. but his political life is never as important as his individual one; every event that matters in this novel is personal–it’s all about the heart. the novel is in its way Dickensian in range–characters from orphans doing forced labor to leaders of nation appear here, but all appear as persons, not mere cut-outs. i guarantee you that hollywood would never, ever do this novel justice.

and the suspense of this book! it’s terrible. i have been living in North Korea since i opened the book, desperate to find out Jun Do’s fate. not only: will he live? because that is uncertain from the opening chapter. but: will he connect to another? will he jettison his heart, because it is not safe to care? what will he sacrifice to become fully human? at each turn of the novel, he is faced with some facet of love, and the choices he makes matter desperately.

the arc required of Jun Do is much more extreme, but not dissimilar, to the arc of anyone who chooses or is forced by circumstance to live life aware. those in this North Korea are anesthetized by propaganda and the imperatives of the State; we in the west are anesthetized by propaganda and the imperatives of the State. Jun Do has a great deal to teach us about learning to see the difference between what we are told and what we know to be true, and how painful it is to apprehend the gulf between.

i can’t speak highly enough for this novel. i’m off now to buy the author’s two preceding works, but i can say without reservation that this novel will be with me for a very, very long time.

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