I bought The Orphan Master’s Son some time ago, but for some reason put it aside and didn’t dive into it until recently. I happened to be in the midst of its magic when I read that it earned its author, Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize…kudos. I passed it along to my college-aged son, and when I asked him how it was, all he could say was, “You have to read it.”
Now I understand why. It is a book like none other I have read. A brilliant story told by an incredible storyteller.
My bookshelves (particularly before my pruning of them) are filled with authors and themes foreign. I delight in characters whose lives are populated with sounds and smells, surroundings and traditions different from my own, to discover over and over again, how we are so very much the same. In literature and life we share the same struggles, the same joys and sorrows, passages with beginnings and ends and wavy paths in between. Underneath the layers which clothe us we are inescapably human.
Entering the world of The Orphan Master’s Son was like swimming through an autistic brain. Things just work differently, beautifully at times, always complex, challenging us to understand the hows and whys, or to discard these questions altogether as perhaps irrelevant, and simply go along for the ride.
As a reader I prefer to encounter the story as the author intends it, not in advance of opening the book’s pages, so I often read plot-revealing reviews after I’ve read a book rather than before. The skeleton plot of this book was not one that I was immediately drawn to: its protagonist a man, a John Doe of sorts, its setting North Korea, a country impenetrable to the outside world in reality and whose representation in fiction is almost equally so, at first.
Through the eyes of Jun Do, the author navigates this dark dystopian world of uniformity, of fear and propaganda, of unimaginable hardship and hunger, where depravity and hopelessness seep like ink through the soul, where despite all this the bonds of humanity, of love and loyalty, somehow survive within. There is narrative within narrative, voices within voices, plot twists that seem to have been plucked from dreams (or nightmares), moments of ephemeral tenderness.
Like all great works, The Orphan Master’s Son consumes and transforms the reader. Nearly five-hundred pages yet not once was I bored or distracted, not once did I want to skip ahead or—as I admit I am oft to do—abandon its lecture. On the contrary, each time I sat down to read I yielded myself to its journey and instantly was there, in the belly of a boat in the Pacific, picking deeply tinted field flowers from the base of a prison fence, in Pyongyang, in Texas, eyes wide, never ever knowing where it would take me next, a bit fearful, anxious and… oddly enough, ready.
N.B. Please check out Words Without Borders‘ recent online issue, titled North Korean Defectors, which contains poetry, fiction and non-fiction by exiled writers who are the only ones “free to tell the truth.”
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