Monday, September 9, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

This book is a commitment.  This is the first book I've read in a while of which I really felt the length. After only 100 pages or so I felt that Pak Jun Do had already lived a lifetime. Johnson tried to put too much into this book, too much plot.

Pak Jun Do lives a life no one would ask for. The course of his life is one hardship after the next. As a citizen of North Korea, Pak Jun Do's life is largely decided for him, by people and forces he does not know. Growing up as an orphan (although technically not an orphan), Pak Jun Do is essentially loaned out as property of the state. As an adult, he lives under the constant threat of what The Dear Leader and his minions could do to him. When Pak Jun Do is finally able to take control of his life, the outcomes are less than desirable. 

This expansive novel is about quest for understanding. A desire for personal identity. What Pak Jun Do wants more than anything is to know who he is, know what his purpose is, and to know love. 

The first section of this book is a novel in itself: The Many Lives of Pak Jun Do. But it is in the second section that things really get interesting. This is when the reader gets a picture of the real underbelly of North Korea and its politics: prison camps, interrogations, manipulations, and mutilations. It is in the second section of the book where the state's control and manipulation becomes most evident, and Johnson's characters have to decide if they want to become a cog in the machine of North Kora, or find a way to break free. In a world where found defectors are tortured, this is not a decision to take lightly. 

Johnson's novel is a lot to digest. Ultimately, The ideas behind the novel are better than their execution. However, the story is a compelling one, despite Pak Jun Do's life having more permutations than seems plausible. 

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