At the book club I attend, the members don’t read the same book each month. Instead, they report on what they’ve read. Works get recommended and passed around, but many are simply passed over by the majority of the members. When a fellow reader reported on Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, everyone agreed that the book didn’t sound very appealing. And yet, I had to read it.
It’s described in the jacket blurb as a thriller with a romance. The book reminds me of thriller and adventure movies, where the world is a little fastastic, action somewhat episodic, extreme and unexplained, the villains too villainous, the protagonists and other minor heroes capable of extreme endurance and courage. District Nine, The Matrix, and The Hunger Games come to mind. But it’s also an examination and expose of an oppressive culture, where myth and legend and manipulation of language—and thus reality—are methods of control and of escape and revolution. It’s that level of the book that intrigues and educates, and makes the book very worth reading—1984 to the nth degree. Johnson researched his subject three years (one wonders how) and presents that world with authority. North Korea remains alien, but less strange and mysterious, more recognizably a physical and spiritual prison. We can understand the fear of even attempting to escape. And we appreciate how vital is the briefest touch of kindness and the slightest flicker of hope. The work engenders sympathy for any people living in such a dictatorship, and, while in the world of the novel, sympathy especially for these people.
It is also a masterful display of point-of-view strategies. Johnson employs two close point of view perspectives—“The Biography of Pak Jun Do,” which offers the life of the protagonist, and “The Confession of Commander Ga” which offers the thoughts of Pak Jun Do’s interrogator and torturer. Interspersed are announcements by a national over-voice. Within these views a wealth of cultural details and individual interpretations gradually form the North Korea we must all already suspect—a veritable hell on earth.
For me, the best reading is as an education in survival of spirit. In that way, the novel is reminiscent of many, many works that present the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. At the end, hope and rescue and a deeper salvation are possible, though not everyone can be saved. Love and concern for others may have to be hidden and covertly shared, but they are not destroyed, and will triumph. May triumph always be the case.