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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea | [Adam Johnson]

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2013

An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

From the Hardcover edition.

©2011 Adam Johnson (P)2011 Random House Audio

What the Critics Say

  • Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • “An addictive novel of daring ingenuity, a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty, and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love - The Orphan Master’s Son is a brave and impressive book.” (David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet)

    “I’ve never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master’s Son is a masterpiece.” (Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children)

    “Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters, whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)

What Members Say

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  •  
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 10-19-13
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 10-19-13 Member Since 2007

    I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A Glorious Book."

    Sometimes you read a Pulitzer Prize winner, and shake your head in disbelief. This time I knew exactly why this book won. It deserves all of the praise it can get.

    This book is SO real. I'm unsure of its accuracy, but I certainly felt like I had a glimpse of the Glorious Democratic People's Republic of Korea through the character's eyes. It's so rare when I actually can suspend reality and feel something on behalf of a character. In this book it happened subtly. I had a visceral reaction to an event before I realized how immersed I was in the characters and their lives. I started to grimace every time I heard "glorious" or "Citizens!" or "Supreme Leader."

    Adam Johnson has done a fine job of using fiction to paint a picture of life inside one of the most closed societies on earth. He allowed me to understand it in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

    The narration is perfectly suited to the book. It's not completely transparent, but gives you a very good sense of where you are and who is talking. I think it's precisely what a good narration should do - especially in a book like this with abhorrent content. I had enough of a reaction. I didn't need any overblown narration to help that along.

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathy Bedford, TX, United States 01-23-12
    Kathy Bedford, TX, United States 01-23-12 Member Since 2007
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    "Brilliant"

    I have to disagree with Tim ??? quite strongly actually.

    This story comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Different characters give us their (incomplete) part of the story so the reader/listener is left to figure out what is actually happening. The Korean names and dialogue made my understanding slower but after listening to it a couple of times, I can???t stop thinking about it. I think Mr. Johnson did a brilliant job of telling a complicated story.

    The level of human misery, cruelty and pathological ideas depicted makes North Korea, in my opinion, the leader in long list of notorious practitioners. History books as well as novels are not shy about adding imaginative ways to hurt people and/or animals but the NK regime certainly beats them all in that respect. It is so hard to believe it has gone on for so long.

    If a North Korean slipped through Alice???s looking glass, he/she would no doubt feel right at home in Wonderland ,, well , if you add lots of cruelty.

    The book is well written and the narration is spot on.

    11 of 14 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric Raymond 09-03-13

    Eric Raymond is the author of "Confessions from a Dark Wood" published by Sator Press, 2012. He lives in San Francisco.

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    "The imagination trumps the totalitarian."

    This is probably the finest audio book I've ever listened to, and it the novel earns every bit of the hype surrounding it. The stunning imagination, the bejeweled detail, the immaculate voicing and structure of this novel makes it one of the best books I've read in the past ten years. You will find it horrific and entertaining in equal measure, and no piece of fiction has worked so hard to counter totalitarian terror without being dogmatic.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 08-01-12
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 08-01-12 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Through the looking glass into North Korea"

    Adam Johnson set the bar high for himself in writing a novel set in a country hidden behind a wall of totalitarianism and rumor. But I thought that the Orphan Master’s Son rose to the challenge and deserves its hype. Johnson seems to accept that he can’t fill in all the details of a place largely blacked out to American eyes, so he relies on a light touch and a writer’s sense of lyricism to impart truth through story and character, rather than facts alone. The real North Korea is simply a jumping off point into Big Brother dystopia as an idea.

    Because what defines life in such places, as Johnson seems to see it, are not facts or people, but narratives. And, here, all narratives are subsumed and rewritten by an all-pervading, state-created fiction. If the state decides that a citizen is to have have a new job, name, husband, or identity, then the citizen does. If the state finds that a citizen’s existence no longer fits the official narrative, the citizen ceases to be. Yet, the state's power contains a flaw: sometimes the narratives it creates for its citizens give them just a little power to resist it.

    Enter Pak Jun Do, a non-orphan who, by various turns of events, becomes recast as an orphan, then as a tunnel soldier trained to fight in the darkness, then as a kidnapper, then as an intelligence officer installed on a fishing boat, then as an agent sent on an absurd mission to Texas. Initially an anonymous, dutiful North Korean subject, opaque to the reader, Jun Do gradually becomes someone, both in terms of his official status and his own inner life. Until, suddenly, we are introduced to another viewpoint on all that’s taken place. At that point, the plot becomes non-linear and a little meta, but it kept me guessing and I never had trouble making sense of what happens. Of course, there’s a love story that comes into play, through a strange twist of fate and a daring act of defiance.

    What lifts this book above the ordinary is Johnson’s skill at enlisting small details and images and making them resonate through the story. The tattoos of their wives that fisherman put on their chests, fragmentary artifacts that drift in from the outside world (on the ocean or through radio), human connections to plants and animals, the use of martyrs names for orphans, the outlandish self-parodying pronouncements of state propaganda broadcasts -- all acquire a meaning beyond themselves. He also shows us human beings being complicated, with all the fear, absurdity, poignancy, boredom, rationalization, darkness, and hope that attends life in an oppressive place. We see how an idealistic state interrogator might compartmentalize his work life and his personal one, his ambitions and his own fears. Or the layers of deception navigated by a character trying to manipulate the deluded, yet shrewd Dear Leader, who is running his own manipulation of the same character. Or how a wary trophy wife, freer than most, but far from free, might respond to being issued a "replacement husband" at the pleasure of Kim Jong Il. I can see why David Mitchell (a favorite writer of mine) made a point of praising this book. It's just as about using a postmodern lens to view the world as his own works are.

    On the subject of postmodernism, the book does have a few weakness. The different substories are a little awkwardly joined. The use of the aforementioned propaganda broadcasts to tell part of the story is a clever device, but gets a little exhausting later in the book. Also, a number of the scenes involving Americans come across as a little forced. Much of the problem, I think, was that any scene in which the Yankees talk yanked me right out of Jun Do's mind -- he couldn't have understood them as I did. Readers who prefer strict realism over literary creation might be frustrated with aspects of the story.

    I was glad Johnson took the dare, though. If it has its rough spots, The Orphan Master's Son is still a stunning accomplishment, and I'm looking forward to seeing where else he might go in his career.

    The audiobook narrators do a fine job, capturing (among other voices) the interrogator’s youthful sense of mission, the stern, moralizing tone of the broadcasts, and the creepy, vapid jocularity of Kim Jong Il.

    6 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Julia Grant Rocky River, OH, US 09-28-13
    Julia Grant Rocky River, OH, US 09-28-13 Member Since 2005
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    "Two versions of propaganda"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    No, I was sorry that I spent time on this melodrama. I am not a big fan of melodrama, but kept thinking there would surely be something more than what was so predictable.


    Would you ever listen to anything by Adam Johnson again?

    Probably not.


    What about the narrators’s performance did you like?

    The narrators did do a great job with depicting the different characters. Can't fault them for what they had to read.


    Do you think The Orphan Master's Son needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

    No. No spoiler from me, but I don't think there is anything left to say.


    Any additional comments?

    I have read a lot about the awful situation in North Korea, and I am not averse to reading a novelized version. But this one went over the top, creating its own version of a propaganda script. If that was Johnson's intent, he succeeded, but I found myself increasingly bored with the idealized caricatures of his "good" characters.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rhea Fort Worth, TX, United States 09-13-13
    Rhea Fort Worth, TX, United States 09-13-13 Member Since 2013

    short, fat, and stupid.

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    "More, more, more, PLEASE!!!!!!"

    Buy this book. I dont normally read fiction but this book was top notch. North Korea is such a great topic setting for a book. I LOVED IT.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Faye 08-31-13
    Faye 08-31-13

    Say something about yourself!

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    "Fascinating!"

    Incredible book taking place in North Korea. It is quite unfathomable that a country like this still exists in this day & age.
    The lead character is really well-developed & although his actions were truly incomprehensible at times, it forces the reader to go beyond thinking what 'normal' is.
    Definitely recommended & no question Pulitzer-worthy!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amy 08-19-13
    Amy 08-19-13
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    "Incredibly Moving Story"

    This was an extremely well written book; I could not put it down. However it is a very disturbing book. The narrators are great!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marci portland, OR, United States 08-16-13
    Marci portland, OR, United States 08-16-13 Member Since 2006
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    "Haunting"

    This book still haunts me. Johnson makes you root for the main character while loving him and hating him, but the real genius is how he sneaks other characters into the book and makes you care about them as well. Johnson has a way of pulling empathy from his audience towards characters that you would normally hate, that would normally be the "bad guy."
    I don't know anything about North Korea, so I don't know how much of the dark, dismal "facts" are true, but wow, he paints communism with the darkest of brushes and makes such a complex, and layered backdrop for the story, that North Korea becomes a character all in itself.
    Genius.

    The reason for the 4 stars on Performance is the sections with the "loud speaker." They were SO annoying. I know they were supposed to be. I got a clear sense of what it must be like to live under a constant loud speaker, but that part of the performance was distracting and I dreaded that part of the book.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sam South Orange, NJ, United States 08-01-13
    Sam South Orange, NJ, United States 08-01-13 Member Since 2012
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    "A staggering novel"

    The Orphan Master's Son is one of the most astonishing novels I have ever read. It's a persuasive portrait of a mysteriously opaque country, North Korea, and how the world must appear through that particular looking glass. It's a beautifully orchestrated tale of a good man who manages to preserve his sense of himself in a land where nothing personal can survive. It's a fascinating meditation on the nature of fiction, in a place where propaganda has turned everything to fiction.

    The audio narration is exquisite.

    One caution: there are moments of extreme brutality that are very hard to listen to. They are not gratuitous, indeed they are essential, but they are very raw.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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