Aug 28, 2012

Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Title: The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel by Adam Johnson
Random House Paperback: August 7,  2012
Genre: political fiction
"My friend," Jun Do said, the tears streaming down his face, "I couldn't save him. He was alone and the water was dark. I couldn't even save a piece of him. " (p. 88)
About the book: Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. The state soon recognizes the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Jun Do rises in the ranks, becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. (based on publisher's description).

My comments: I knew that this novel was a fictional look into the daily workings of North Korea and the lives of the struggling people, personified by a young man Jun Do, who becomes part of the political machine. I saw Jun Do as a John Doe, a faceless Everyman of his political system, expected to be just one more cog in the machine. He was not a person I could be sympathetic to, for the most part, as he didn't seem totally real.

What I did not expect was my reaction to the book. I entered a surreal world that was contradictory and without reason - your worst fantasy or a bad nightmare. I got the idea right away about the unbearable conditions and the insanity Jun Do and others faced.

After my first impressions, I wanted something familiar to keep me reading,  something even remotely familiar to break the heavy and strange atmosphere.  I couldn't find the reasons behind the book except to show the unbearable conditions. I wanted brilliance in the prose, wanted symbolism, philosophical musings even. The straight forward narrative was too heavy-handed for me. It was like being hit with the details of a horrendous situation over and over when less would have been enough and would probably have worked better for the book. Trying to finish the novel became difficult. I couldn't move forward and was bogged down by its weight.

In all fairness, I have to say the book is on the New York Times bestseller list. There are readers who see what I can't. But I do give kudos to the writer for all the research and time invested in writing this unusual book.

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

For other reviews and thoughts on The Orphan Master's Son, visit TLC Book Tours.

Thanks to
and the publisher for providing an ARC of this novel for review.

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme hosted by Miz B of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Add two sentences from your current read and identify the author and title.


  1. Many have the same thoughts about this book.

  2. Harsh teaser. I may have to give this a try. Here is my TT

  3. That snippet is so sad. Thanks for the honest review. It does sound like a heavy read.

  4. A lot of other felt the same as you did, and didn't end up enjoying this one. I am planning on listening to it when I get the time, and seeing what I think of it. Very honest and heartfelt review today.

  5. It was definitely a heavy read. I was fascinated by the setting, I think because I'd never read anything set in North Korea before.

  6. I am okay with heavy handedness so that is probably why it resonated a bit more with me than you. It was definitely a different type of book. Not my usual fare.

  7. This sounds unusually heavy. Thanks for your honest review, Harvee!

  8. Haven't heard of this one before. Sounds intriguing, but I'm pretty sure it's not for me. I appreciated your honest review.

  9. I have to say I experienced it as good window on a world I didn't know at all. I listened to it, maybe that's better for this book, and enjoyed it thoroughly. see my review:

  10. I'm not a fan of straight-forward narrative, so I think I'll pass on this one.

  11. I coudn't do something this heavy about N Korea. I'm sure I'd feel similar.

  12. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.


I love getting comments and your thoughts...