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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

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Lisa 01-27-12
    Lisa 01-27-12 Member Since 2002
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "The most compelling listen I've ever owned"

    I've been an Audible subscriber since the beginning (1999). There are over 500 books in my library. This is the most compelling story I have ever heard. I seriously couldn't turn it off.

    To say it is the journey of one man through the "Looking Glass" that is the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, doesn't do it justice. Johnson draws characters that make you feel the oppression of life under that regime. He's obviously done serious study of the North Korean people and culture. The people of this book will live in my thoughts for a long time.

    And Johnson addresses this tale with a light touch. It's not maudlin or morose. But it is haunting.

    The performances by the readers is equal to this work. The producers uses a very interesting switch at a critical point in this story that brings everything into focus. No spoiler - you'll know it when it happens. But the production makes this recording nothing short of brilliant.

    Don't bother to hold the voting this year. I can tell you who wins the Audie.

    40 of 43 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 08-05-13
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 08-05-13

    A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "My favorite novel set primarily in North Korea"

    One of my favorite novels of the year, and definitely my favorite novel set primarily in North Korea (I've read four others, or five). This is one of those contemporary novels like 'The Son' by Meyer or Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang', or Udall's 'The Lonely Polygamist' that delivers almost everything I search for in a novel: originality, amazing prose, fantastic characters, meaning. These novels might not be 'War and Peace' or 'Moby-Dick' but they definitely show that fiction isn't even close to being dead.

    Johnson deftly examines such themes as: propaganda, stories, the concept of self and identity, totalitarianism, love, memory, etc., in a novel way. This book deserves a spot among the other great totalitarian prison books (Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon', Orwell's '1984', and Nabokov's 'Invitation to a Beheading'. Even though only a part of this novel is actually set in a prison, I'd argue that all totalitarian literature is **at heart** just a sub-genre of prison literature. An amazing novel. Don't miss it.

    30 of 33 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Karen los angeles, CA, United States 02-24-12
    Karen los angeles, CA, United States 02-24-12 Member Since 2005

    living in los angeles I drive a lot, so audio books save me from a lot of frustration!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    Story
    "THE DARK SIDE OF CASABLANCA"

    This insanely unique novel is hard to describe. Its a literary thriller, a modern-day Casablanca, a character study and a unrelenting bleak and painful portrait of a Country (North Korea) where people are forced to live according to a script written by their sadistic leader, and one wrong word could land you in a prison camp. The pace doesn't let up for a moment as the author explores the effects of constant propaganda, deprivation, and the pain of having to hide your true self or risk torture or death. He weaves his story around a man who starts out in an orphanage, becomes a spy, a kidnapper, and ultimately, an imposter who takes on Kim Jong Il. It's beautifully written, brutally realistic and definitely not for the squeamish.

    20 of 22 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Suzn F Fletcher, VT, US 05-31-13
    Suzn F Fletcher, VT, US 05-31-13 Member Since 2005

    I believe a reviewer should finish a book before submitting a review. What do you think?

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "WOW ....can't forget this book"

    Imagine that you live in a society where all your dental and medical care is free. And your food is free. And there is no violent "crime". And everyone works together for a common goal. And the leader of this place is called " Dear Leader".
    You wouldn't have to worry about paying bills, what school to send your children, and what to wear at the office party. Why? Because everything is decided for you including your wife or husband, your career, your food, where you will live, and if your children will be allowed to grow up in your home.
    Welcome to this book about North Korea and the orphan master's son, the main character. Identities are regularly changed, without a question. Citizens must regularly submit to "self criticism sessions". Torture is routine. You may be assigned a substitute spouse should your current spouse disappear or die. No one is allowed a voice. The dear leader always knows best. Paranoia rules.
    This book is written in a style reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, although not quite as wonderful, still very solid.
    I keep thinking about this book. I very glad I read this although at times it went on and on and perhaps because I was listening and not reading in print, I found it confusing with the replacement characters.

    13 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    P. J. Benyei 01-28-12 Listener Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "BRAVO!"

    A new favorite in my 200+ audiobook library. It is a moving epic story about life in North Korea. One of the best I've ever listened to, I can not say enough about how wonderful this book is. There is a section about half way through where a case of mistaken identity makes the book a little hard to follow, and a little bit tough to believe, but work through it and you will not be dissapointed at how it all comes together. An amazing experience, absolutely engrossing, this is one I will listen to again and again and again.

    12 of 14 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thug4life Sutton, MA 01-17-14
    Thug4life Sutton, MA 01-17-14 Member Since 2012

    I'm just a dumb troglodyte who like reading. Me feel good after I read book.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Stephen King's 2013 Recommendation"
    Any additional comments?

    Not only did Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son" (Orphan) win the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but Stephen King listed the book as the 2013 top work of fiction (Entertainment Magazine, 12/2013). The purpose of Johnson's book is to expose the world to the way of life North Korea citizens must endure. The author accomplishes this by depicting the life events of one man, Jun Do, whose adventures covers the spectrum of citizenship; orphan to hero.Through Jun Do’s story, the reader is exposed to North Korea’s exploitation of citizens, government propaganda, philosophy of leadership, and control of the masses through coercion.

    Jun Do’s story is interesting enough, but the books purpose is to put you in touch with the daily living conditions of the North Korean people as controlled and dictated by a sinister ruling party. The genius of Johnson’s work is that the information gleaned by the reader never seems forced or a work of nonfiction. Elements of the North Korean lifestyle are woven seamlessly into the overarching story. The reader never feels they are attending a lecture or education seminar.

    As a reader, I had some basic background information about the repressive North Korean government ruled by the now deceased Kim Jong-Il. However, Orphan brings to life the graphic reality the North Korean people experience. Orphan will open your eyes to the despotic/Orwellian nightmare of North Korea.

    The narration of Orphan is excellent. My only criticism of Orphan is it’s about 100 pages too long. There are small sections of the book that are overwritten that serve to collectively frustrate the reader. However, this is a truly important and revealing book that will change your perspective on world events.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    K Cornwinkle Forestville, CA USA 08-15-13
    K Cornwinkle Forestville, CA USA 08-15-13 Member Since 2008

    Say something about Yusef. Uh...he was a great horn player?

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Hmmm...I liked this very much but"

    It is an important and good thing that this book gives readers a glimpse of the true horror of DPRK. But ultimately this is a story (as Adam Johnson tells us in an afterward) and while I think it intends to show us how REAL people suffer, the fantastical, which makes it such a great read, makes the characters stay on the page.
    The narration is super. James Kyson Lee as the voice of the PA system in every home -reminded -irony in some way no?- of the disembodied PA voice in M.A.S.H.
    I had tried to post a review with a bunch of links in it. A no-no I guess. North Korea information sites and Kim Jong Il's movie star mistress, Song Hye-rim's Wikipedia page.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    L Centennial, CO, United States 05-01-13
    L Centennial, CO, United States 05-01-13

    Skeptic

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Disturbing"

    If you've read Escape from Camp 14 you have a good idea what North Korean prisons are like. North Korean life outside its prisons does not appear to be much better. I found this book difficult to comprehend at times. I questioned why the author devoted so much time to particular individuals, or why he chose a particular sequence of events to weave the story together. In the end it didn't matter. The point was clear, the story was disturbing and the inhuman manipulation that is North Korea was stunningly revealed. The book is a work of art. It is impressive. You just have to be prepared for a nasty ride.

    11 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Melinda UT 05-03-13
    Melinda UT 05-03-13 Member Since 2009

    So hooked by audio that I have to read books aloud. *If my reviews help, please let me know.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    8096
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    "A Nightmarish Orwellian Dimension"

    You are going on a journey; insert your ear buds, and be prepared to step into a vortex of imaginative chaos, oppression, corruption, cruelty--you will wonder if you need to check your navigation...is this Johnson's novel about No. Korea, or is this Orwell, Kafka, Murakami (Timothy Leary), that has hijacked your device and carried you into a surreal and convoluted parallel universe created by Phillip Dick?

    The speakers blare out...The first blast of propaganda hints at Pak Jun Do's mother--a kidnapped opera singer, a *toy* of the Dear Leader. The father, it is assumed, is the Master of the orphanage. The story is told in 2 parts, the first section being about Jun Do and his upbringing --the dirty and horrific jobs he takes to survive. Here Johnson is at his best describing the tunnels and kidnappings, the rusting fishing boat and the voices that seem to come from nowhere through the ship's radio, the haul of Nike shoes fished up from the sea. The paranoia and oppression entrenched in the men is like the rust taking over the boat. Jun Do goes through several professions and levels of social standing, tunnel fighter, kidnapper, radio operator, then prisoner, hero, foreign dignitary, and eventually takes over an assumed identity, inheriting a wife, and finds love.

    Johnson tells the story using several different methods; creative and clever, and at times even humorous, these many devices tell the horrors and atrocities almost like background music floating behind a scene: the propaganda speakers blare out the love the Dear Leader has for his people, while Jun Do travels through the country seeing his people eating grass or raising dogs for food; an interrogator thinks, "we ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels..in a few weeks he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective" --the prisoner, a professor, was accused of playing pop music from South Korea to his students. The writing methods and devices are like passages to another place on the timeline of the story, adding a new dimension to reader participation, but just as easily can be confusing-- making this a read that requires real effort, but very worthwhile.

    If you have ever used the aid of nitrous oxide at the dentist's office, you will relate: I started listening to this novel at the dentist's office (I was scheduled for a 3 hour fun-block). A new book, a fully charged ipod, and the gas mask firmly in place. After about 1 hour, I got a little break. I lifted the nitrous mask from my face, looked at my ipod and thought, "WTH?! Maybe I shouldn't be listening to this under the influence." When I got home, lungs full of oxygen, brain cleared out, I started over. I listened a while then thought, "WTH!?" Once you catch on to the methods, the story becomes clear and easily navigated. Johnson's novel is a piece of inspired literary construction with steps and passages, tunnels, holes, voices from nowhere... with writing that is just as alarmingly beautiful and incongruent. Parts seemed even beyond surreal to me and were not a good fit, thus my 4* rating. But, for all I know, behind that wall of secrecy, this could be complete reality with just a surreal and convoluted leader?


    37 of 46 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mary SACRAMENTO, CA, United States 02-03-12
    Mary SACRAMENTO, CA, United States 02-03-12 Member Since 2010
    HELPFUL VOTES
    13
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    "Follows you like a ghost"

    The tunnels, a key theme, sum up this story -- very dark, but occasional mysterious sounds and touches of humanity can propel even the most victimized onward in search of a bit of light. I put the book down a few times -- torture is just too hard to read -- but picked it right back up as I was haunted by the main character and vivid images -- men on a ship in complete darkness listening to a woman rowing across the ocean each night; Sun Moon crying over Casablana; the absurd so-scary-that-they-feel-possibly-real diplomatic exchanges (North Koreans trying on boots in Texas?!)...
    I don't know a lot about North Korea, and hesitate to write this review given what more-informed readers have posted and the whiff Tom Clancy that I smell, but...this is definitely a well-crafted, unique story. And I'm going to read more about NK.

    13 of 16 people found this review helpful
  • Showing: 1-10 of 127 results PREVIOUS1213NEXT
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  • clive
    chesterfield, United Kingdom
    6/30/12
    Overall
    "Brilliant story about a brutal place"

    One of the best books I've heard. I'd listened to 'Nothing to Envy' about North Korea but this book is even better at giving an insight into this dystopian country. It reminded me of the bits of 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell which are set in the future, though this is terrifyingly present. It's in two parts - the first part immerses you in the life of the orphan master's son and is beautiful and bleak, plotted at breakneck speed like 'The History of Tom Jones' set in 1984. The second part is more fantastical and unlikely, reading like a thriller and a love story and utterly compelling. I think if you like David Mitchell, or 'The Sisters Brothers' or 'Nothing to Envy' then you'll like this. Highly recommended- a book I couldnt stop listening to.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Marianna
    Horst, Netherlands
    12/5/12
    Overall
    "Incredible beginning, less convincing second part"

    The first part of the book is as incredibly captivating depiction of the lives of the main characters in the isolated, oppressive country of North Korea. The story is beautifully written, at times almost poetically, at times with such authenticity of the portrayal of the most intimate thoughts and feelings, that I found it breathtaking and could not stop listen often late to the night. What in my opinion also adds a deeper dimension to the first part of the book is that at times it is based on real historical events, such as the period of famine or the abductions of several people from Japan. These events, and the way they formed people are described with such accuracy, and so realistically, that it provided a very powerful glimpse into the lives of people in this country, which so little is known about.

    However, in the second part, the books becomes a lot more surreal. The main character begins to impersonate a well known North Korean war hero, part of the story begins to take place at a very 'high-tech' torture units, with detailed descriptions of torture equipment and techniques, which do not sound very believable, the late leader, Kim Jong-il is depicted almost as a comical caricature.

    Personally, I was not very fond of this switch, from a very genuine and authentic, to almost a science-fiction style. I found it a lot less enjoyable form the literary style point of view, as well as confusing, as it almost had a feel of 'pro-US propaganda' and I fear that it may be misleading for some readers.

    Still, the first part of the book was superb, and the book was definitely well worth the listen just for that!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • John
    Worcester, Worcestershire, United Kingdom
    8/2/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Compelling, disturbing, brutal!"
    What made the experience of listening to The Orphan Master's Son the most enjoyable?

    This is an excellent recording of a gripping tale based on a living hell.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    Due to some of the graphic detail and prolonged brutality I chose to read this book in bite-size chunks.


    Any additional comments?

    The Orphan Master's Son caused me to repeatedly think about the plight of those living in oppressive conditions and circumstances where individual freedom is crushed. This book is universal in its message to humanity.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Kim
    7/31/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Disturbing but fascinating"
    Any additional comments?

    The story was utterly fascinating.. never read anything like it. I realize it's a fictional novel but omg, if North Korea is anything like it is described in this book gods help those poor souls who dwell within! Very well written and gripping story telling.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • JT
    6/6/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Excellent"
    Would you listen to The Orphan Master's Son again? Why?

    Certainly. There is so much in this book, there will be things that I missed.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Orphan Master's Son?

    .


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • SDY
    Australia
    8/13/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "A struggle"

    Some novels win prizes for reasons that remain unknown to the reader, but in this case it’s clear why this book won the Pulizter: the setting is so compelling and mostly unknown to the everyday person, that it alone pulls you through the story. Is it well written? Not particularly. Is it a masterpiece? Certainly not. At time confusing and repetitive, the narration slows down in several points, marking this as a pretty boring book to get through, with characters that blend into one and a prose that remains pretty ordinary. I stuck with it to a predictable ending, and managed to skip 3 chapters towards the end and still know exactly what was going on- this novel needs some pretty severe editing. It’s not a book I would recommend, but if you’re a patient reader with a curiosity for North Korea, read on.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
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