The Orphan Master’s Son

2/4/12 Remarkable. Ingenious. I could end my review of Adam Johnson’s new book right there. But, first, let me tell you something about this imaginative and profoundly chilling tale about North Korea. There are three intertwining streams of narrative. The main one comes from the title character, a chameleon type man who wants at first to convince his audience that he is not really an orphan, that the North Korean government whisked his mother away to Pyngyang because she was beautiful, that his father, the Orphan Master, treats him badly so that no one will suspect their relationship. Evidently, being an orphan in North Korea is something about which to be ashamed. Better to be a torturer, an informer, a robot. Interspersed at increasing frequency is the story of a member of the secret police who believes that he can extract people’s confessions without torture. For each of his subjects, he writes a biography that no one ever sees — except for perhaps someone from the propaganda ministry, who will twist the real story into something blasted from loud speakers into everyone’s home and workplace. And that brings us to the third narrator: the propaganda coming from the loud speaker. In the end — and this isn’t a spoiler — the reader has a good idea about the true stories of almost all the characters. But no matter who they are, the police state marches on in ways unimaginable even to readers who familiar with the political and social climate of North Korea. I know living conditions are truly horrible there. People are controlled and famine is frequent. Citizens are so isolated they actually think they live in the most powerful country on earth. There is no other truth for them. Johnson’s two main characters are seeking truth, but it comes at an enormous cost to them and people they know. Some of the smaller stories are hypnotic — the sailors who tattoo pictures of their wives over their hearts, the American girls who are rowing around the world, the bible-believing Texas senator and his wife who treat a visiting North Korean delegation to a barbeque (a move so totally out of place, but the clueless Americans become likeable in this tale where they would be an object of ridicule in another). Eventually, everything ties together; we have an ending, several in fact, though only one is the truth. The Orphan Master’s Son is the first great novel of 2012. (Click on the cover picture to go to the Barnes & Noble site.)