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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Adam Johnson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 10 2012 Pulitzer Prize - Fiction

Amazon.ca Editors' Pick: Best Books of 2012

"Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"RIch with a sense of discovery...The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012." - The Daily Beast

"This is a novel worth getting excited about." - The Washington Post

"[A] ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory." - Elle

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.


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Review

“An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.”—Pulitzer Prize citation

“All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book's cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” The Wall Street Journal

The Orphan Master’s Son performs an unusual form of sorcery, taking a frankly cruel and absurd reality and somehow converting it into a humane and believable fiction. It’s an epic feat of story-telling. It’s thrillingly written, and it's just thrilling period.” —Zadie Smith, Los Angeles Times

“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son.  Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.” The Washington Post

“Adam Johnson's remarkable novel The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.” Wall Street Journal

"A harrowing, clever, incomparable riff on life in Kim Jong Il's North Korea” San Francisco Chronicle

“Magnificently accomplished…Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research…but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author's imagination…rich with a sense of discovery…The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012” The Daily Beast

"Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son." National Geographic Traveler

“An incredibly vivid page-turner of a novel…Romance, coming-of-age tale, adventure and thriller all in one, this book is singular and not to be missed.” The Huffington Post, 10 Best January Must-Reads

"The death of Kim Jong Il couldn't have come at a better time for novelist Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son is a richly textured political thriller about the hidden world of North Korea with all of its misery, violence and defiant acts of love under impossible circumstances. Stunning and evocative imagery abounds on every page.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Startling…Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic...[He] writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat.” Newsday

“Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: ‘...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.’ In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” Publisher's Weekly, (STARRED REVIEW )

“[A] fantastical, careening tale…Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief.…Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.” Booklist, (STARRED REVIEW)

“Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended.” Library Journal, (STARRED REVIEW)

“[A] vivid, violent portrait of a nation…[a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot-on saga. Johnson’s metathriller, spiked with gory intrigues and romantic subplots, is a ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory in a world where everyone’s “a survivor who has nothing to live for.” Elle

“Ambitious, violent, audacious—and stunningly good.” O Magazine

“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

“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. A brave and impressive book.” —David Mitchell

“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

About the Author

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. His other works include Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. He lives in San Francisco.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By Tommy Dooley TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Let me start by saying I was so impressed with this novel that I am going to come across like Adam Johnsons' mum, publisher, editor, best friend, paid acquaintance or a combination of any of the above. I was actually lucky enough to get a copy and just read it. The blurb makes it sound like a sort of comedy set in North Korea, in actuality it is a staggering achievement as to what you can do when you truly love the subject as Johnson does.

It is in two parts, the first chronicles the life or rather endurance and suffering of Jun Do; he is the son of the Orphan Master, after his mother was taken away to entertain the big wigs in Pyongyang, they were left alone. All beautiful girls from the provinces are taken away like this. It is also shameful to be an orphan and they have their real names ignored and are replaced with the names of fallen martyrs. This way they will always carry the mark and shame of being an orphan. Jun Do's father pretends he too is an orphan and treats him more harshly than the others, it is an existence of grinding poverty ' made worse by the compulsory loud speakers that spout blatant propaganda all day and act as brain washing devices.

In turns he becomes a tunnel assassin in the Demilitarized Zone, a kidnapper and reluctant and not very good spy. He also ends up on a fishing boat where he gets the love of his life's image tattooed over his heart ' the 'best actress in the world' Sun Moon - not her real name, but chosen for her by The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il; or the fat tyrant who is famous for his song 'I so Ronery', as we know him in the Imperialist West.

Then Part Two deals with the Taekwando Champion of the World and husband to the best actress ' Commander Ga. He is famous for many things including ridding the army of homosexuals.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well crafted June 30 2013
By Mark
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book captures well what must be a completely disorienting experience living in North Korea. A well told story that maintains a perfect pace and level of tension throughout.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This novel is about the adventures and misadventures of Pak Jun Do, a North Korean, who is raised in the `Long Tomorrows' orphanage his father is director of. Jun Do never knew his mother - we are told that she is a singer of great beauty who was shipped to Pyongyang. His name, like those of the other orphans, is given to him from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. He is, simultaneously, everyone and no-one. Jun Do even sounds like John Doe.

After the orphanage is devastated, Jun Do is sent to the military where first he undertakes training in zero-light combat in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, and then on an undercover mission which involves kidnapping Japanese from the beaches. And then, Jun Do is sent to language school to learn English, which gets him assigned to a boat to transcribe radio intercepts. Once back on land, he is assigned to an intelligence team travelling to Texas where he meets a Senator and his wife.

`There's no way around it: to get a new life, you've got to trade in your old one.'

After returning from Texas, Jun Do ends up in a labour camp where he takes over the life and identity of a North Korean military hero, Commander Ga. In this half of the novel, the depiction of North Korea may exceed a reader's wildest imaginings. `The Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, who died shortly before this book was published, is Commander Ga's rival for the affections of Commander Ga's wife, an actress named Sun Moon.

It's complicated, and convoluted and doesn't always make sense.
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The book was confusing and unclear in the characterization of the main characters. I kept losing the main gist of the story. It was confusing at times.
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4.0 out of 5 stars strange April 5 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a very strange book. I am not sure how representative it is of North Korea. It definitely left me wondering.
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Format:Kindle Edition
In another book, 'Nothing to Envy -Ordinary Lives in North Korea ' by Barbara Demick in the first chapter is a satellite view of N & S Korea at night. The bottom half has a smattering of lit up inhabited areas w Seoul largely evident as the capitol by the size of whiteness or lightness against blackness of night. Whereas, the upper N. Korea looks almost non existent, a couple of dots like two pple smoking or an insignificant flicker a plane against starless universe. So daunting is that image taken from space, it has stayed w me as the 'picture says it all'.

I realize this author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize be sure to read the short interview at the end w editor asking the questions. As this is a novel & not based on real characters, I know of the propaganda constantly being fed to the poor to ensure allegiance to "Dear Dictator, the father" before family members. The great famine is not exaggerated, (the worst imaginable, hundreds of thousands died, yet outside aid was rejected which oddly is absent, I believe, in this narrative)Imo, there were too many scenarios that were obviously created to personalize , since the author was not given access to interview the 'common pple' during his visit to N K. As expected, he was escorted & closely watched as he made his way to sites & places. He was allowed to request (within reason of a Communist country living in the dark day & night where pple were made to believe there were no better places & contained elements of deprived living, , working in terrible conditions however he went to an Orphanage which has a constant underscoring in the story. The rest of his information was through interviewing those who defected, though he d o es say few do.

In my opinion, there was one flaw in the conveying the reality of N.
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