Yea! Another novel set in Korea, this time North Korea. Maybe Korea really is becoming the new India for publishers. Given my semi-obsession with both Koreas I’ll take it. This new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is getting a lot of attention and you know what that means my friend. More titles about and/or set in the Koreas. No mission statement in publishing is as hard, fast and adhered to as “Publish as many titles as you can that mimic a bestseller.” Need proof? One word: vampire.
Back to my reading The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Let me repeat, Yea! Pak Jun Do is the orphaned son of a singer or so he’s been told. He was told this by his Father, Jun Do, who is the Orphan Master. Do runs his orphanage, Long Tomorrows, with a steel hand sparing no one including his son. Like another unhappy, literary orphan, Oliver Twist, Pak Jun Do is requited into a secret crime organization. Unlike Oliver however, Pak’s new job is as a government sanctioned kidnapper. Too bad for Pak his Fagin is the government of Kim Jong ll. There is no happy reunion with a loving family waiting on Pak’s horizon.
Pak’s career as a kidnapper has him bringing Koreans and non-Koreans back to the mother land. Writers, filmmakers, doctors, etc. living outside of North Korea who “need” to be returned home. His specialty is recovering these misguided souls in Japan. Pak’s rise among the party faithful hits a snag when a diplomatic mission to the U.S. blows up. His Golden Boy success in tatters, Pak reject his punishment and takes it on the lam.
The Orphan Master’s Son is at its wonderful best when Johnson is writing about North Korea. He paints an affecting portrait of a population living under the thumb of a dictator. Johnson touches on almost every level of society in Korea. There are economic and educational disparities between people but they all live underneath the sediment of constant propaganda and chilling fear. This country is not for the faint of heart.
Adam Johnson delivers an ingeniously plotted and engaging novel. The Orphan Master’s Son lives up to the attention it has generated. Pak is a fascinating hero in a cast thick with unique characters, but quite honestly the real star of this novel is North Korea.