Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
by Adam Johnson, Fiction 
(Released January, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Jun Do, the son of a leader of an orphan camp and a “lost” mother, experiences numerous horrific episodes under the totalitarian government of North Korea before embarking on a mission to “free” Sun Moon, North Korea’s most famous actress.
My Thoughts: This book had so much going on that I couldn’t figure out how to write a short, coherent plot summary! But, it also tells you something about the book. This book won numerous awards last year (NY Times Bestseller, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Best Book of the Year by multiple big name newspapers including The Washington Post and the WSJ) but, unfortunately, joins The Round House in my “don’t let the big awards fool you” category. Hmm…maybe that should be the topic for an upcoming book list! Before I talk about why I’m not recommending this book, I should say that I found the topic of life in North Korea absolutely fascinating and I learned a lot about a mysterious (and terrifying!) country. There were long stretches of the book where I forgot this was set in present day – North Korea is so backward that I kept thinking I was reading about the early 1900’s until some mention of “Nikes” from Japan or “ATM’s” in Seoul jarred me back to reality. The “Conversation” section with the author at the end of the book about what was true vs. fiction about life in North Korea is definitely worth reading. On to the book…the first half was such a slog. I had to force myself through it and wanted to put it down many times. I should have felt something emotional for the characters and the conditions they live under (insanely constricting rules, constant government propaganda, mysterious “disappearances” of loved ones to labor camps, labor camp conditions, food rations and hunger, astounding brutality, etc), but I just didn’t feel it. The characters felt less like humans and more like paper dolls to me. Many of them didn’t have names, which bothered me and contributed to the one-dimensional feeling. The second half did pick up considerably, but not enough to make the first half slog worth it. There was also just too much going on in the plot. Jun Do did so many loosely related things in the first half that I couldn’t remember them all during the second half…nor do I think they mattered all that much to the central story of him trying to save Sun Moon. Finally, there is a parallel “government sanctioned” version of the story that is being told to citizens over the national loudspeaker system throughout the entire book. I appreciate the message Johnson is trying to convey by including this, but I would sometimes forget if I was reading the “real” story or the propaganda version, just adding to the confusion. While The Orphan Master’s Son was deemed masterful and important by the “literary community”, it doesn’t stand up to my primary criteria of “was it enjoyable to read and/or was I engrossed in it?”.

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