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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) Paperback – August 7, 2012
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“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. . . . Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” —Publishers 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 is the author of Fortune Smiles, winner of the National Book Award and the Story Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the California Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Johnson’s other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship; he was also a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. His previous books are Emporium, a short story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.
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Jun Do begins in the orphanage then goes to work in the tunnels that are totally dark. These run under the DMZ and are very dangerous to work in, but he becomes very good at what he does and goes on to language school where he doesn't learn very much. The teacher speaks English which the students are trying to learn, but he doesn't speak Korean. Jun Do is assigned to a kidnapping unit and although he doesn't like it he does as he is told, kidnapping people from the beaches of Japan. One of them is an opera singer and this makes Jun Do think of his own mother who was kidnapped in the same way. He serves time on a fishing boat where he listens to transmissions and follows two women rowing around the world as he listens for signals or transmissions from potential enemies. Jun Do finally winds up in a prison camp where he defeats Commander Ga in a martial arts fight, and who is a rival to Kim Jong-Il. Commander Ga is the husband of Sun Moon, who is a beautiful actress and singer. Jun Do has fallen in love with her.
There is famine and starvation in North Korea and Jun Do has to deal with that tragic outcomes of that. In the work camps there are scenes of violence, but I've read a lot of books including memoirs of defectors from this country and the violence that those who successfully made it out describe is much worse that what is in The Orphan Master's Son. This is a long, often convoluted read, but if you stick with it it is well worth the time spent when you reach the end and all loose ends are tied up nicely by this extraordinary author. It is one of those books you won't easily forget.
Without spoiling anything, the novel starts much like you'd expect a novel about North Korea: it's foreign, bleak and disturbing. The first part of the book introduces us to Pak Jun Do -- the Orphan Master's Son of the title -- and it progresses steadily until you think you know what to expect from this novel. But at the end of Part I (about 25% through) the author shifts the story so surprisingly, so audaciously, I couldn't help but pay closer attention. Once I was hooked, I couldn't put the book down.
The Orphan Master's Son is one of those great novels, like The Life of Pi, that's both accessible and profound. It takes you to emotional places you didn't think you'd go, and yet by the end it all seems inevitable that you'd end up there. The author also did an incredible job rendering every nuance of the North Korean social climate. It's as if someone who lived there all his life wrote The Orphan Master's Son.
Mr. Johnson's storytelling is so masterful, it took me back to the feeling I had when I first fell in love with reading. I imagine this hauntingly beautiful novel will stay with me for many years.