Monday, January 16, 2012

The first great novel of 2012!

The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson

I read a lot.  I read a diverse cross-section of fiction.  And I am telling you that I have never read anything like Adam Johnson’s novel, The Orphan Master’s Son.  And I’ll cut to the chase here and tell you that it knocked my socks right off!

The novel is the story of Pak Jun Do, the eponymous orphan master’s son.  Jun Do spends the novel explaining to people that despite his orphan’s name and upbringing in an orphanage, that he is not an orphan.  Although he is not parented well, or for long. “All orphans are destined for the Army eventually.  But this was how Jun Do, at fourteen, became a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat."

This is merely the first chapter of Jun Do’s absolutely extraordinary life.  He’s a tremendously appealing character, who struggles to overcome the many challenges of his life with integrity and without complaint.  He literally doesn’t know there is an alternative to the harsh life he has experienced in North Korea. 

So, the novel revolves around a terrific central character, and the author has given him an epic and eventful story, but truthfully it’s the North Korean setting that makes this story so compelling.  The novel opens with the first of many propaganda bursts played from ubiquitous loudspeakers.  What it broadcasts is insane!
“In local news, Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deepening the Taedong River channel.  While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day.”  
That is just the very tip of the iceberg.  Life in North Korea is like nothing I could imagine in my wildest dreams.  Well, nightmares.  Author Johnson spent years researching the peninsula, and actually had the rare opportunity to visit the country while writing this novel.  It is fascinating in a truly horrifying way.  I will never listen to news out of North Korea the same way again.

I could write more about Jun Do’s picaresque story, but the joy here is in watching it unfold.  The Orphan Master’s Son has been described as a literary novel, a romance, and a thriller.  It is all of those things and more.  Beneath the surface of the story, there is commentary not only on life in this oppressive realm, but in our own.  And it’s actually about the role that the stories we tell has on the direction of our lives.  It has humor, emotion, heart, and a hero you’ll root for.  This is a powerful novel and simply fantastic storytelling.  I highly recommend it for pretty much everyone.  This early in the year, I may just have read one of 2012’s best books.

NOTE:  I shot some great video of Adam Johnson speaking at the novel's book launch in San Francisco last week.  I wanted to get it posted earlier, but I've been having "technical difficulties" getting the footage uploaded.  Adam's discussion of the book, reading, and the Q & A is fascinating, so hopefully I'll be able to post it soon.  :-)

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