Friday, February 10, 2012
Author: Adam Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: January 10, 2012
I was so excited to read this book. So much so that I decided to purchase the hardcover rather than wait maybe a couple more days to be approved for the digital netgalley version (which is free! and for which I was approved shortly thereafter). But I figured I'd want to own it anyway and loan it out. Well, as it turns out, I had an incredibly difficult time getting through this one. I trudged through this book that took me almost two weeks to read!! Here's the thing, though. It's received so many rave reviews from the professional book reviewing industry that, though I know the casual reader sometimes has differing opinions, I still wonder if it's just me. I will say that in some ways I was reminded of my experience with The Tiger's Wife where yes, I could see that it was beautiful and good and all but where a lot of it just went over my head.
The Orphan Master's Son is mostly about Pak Jun Do who grows up in a North Korean orphanage that his father runs. Yet, his father treats him just like the other orphans. This part of the book is really about a page (or maybe a chapter) long... this book is NOT about Jun Do's childhood. Instead it races through that part quickly showing us how he spent time as a kidnapper and then on a fishing boat, one of few North Koreans who is exposed to life outside their country. Because of good deeds he had been sent to an English language school and was able to pick up some of the language which helped in some of the future missions. One such mission is to travel to Texas to build a relationship with a senator and some other important people. The theme coursing throughout this entire book is the characters slowly realizing the true ways of their country so, in a way, this trip starts to make Jun Do really think. Then the whole second part of the book is the actions and recourse taken after the return from Texas. Jun Do impersonates a famous person and begins to try to manipulate "The Dear Leader" whose name I choose not to write in my blog! (On another note how weird that in real life he passed away just before the release of this book!) We then learn the story of all the events that occur after the Texas trip through three narrators, Jun Do, an interrogator, and through the unreliable narration of the North Korean loudspeakers relating the story to their citizens.
I will say the three-part-narration was interesting and artsy. I imagine Johnson's writing style in that sense is part of what the critics love about this book. That and the imagined life inside a country shut off from the entire world. Initially I had some difficulty getting into the book because the characters were so different than what I had read about last year in non-fiction Nothing to Envy... There I read about characters who believed everything they were told and adored their country (which we have in this book too), but the ones in that book who thought about defecting seemed much more progressive in their thinking whereas the characters in this book who even considered it were more ambiguous in their thinking... I just had a difficult time relating. Then it was the fishing boat thing which didn't interest me and I didn't really understand what was going on. I just spent a lot of time not completely sure what was happening or what the point was. The second half of the book was better, specifically the last quarter or so of the book when we start to learn about what all really happened.
Another thing that probably swayed me was the overwhelming and oppressive melancholy in the story. It's a feeling very similar to what I had when reading 1984... scary in a true nightmarish kind of way. I'd say it's natural based on the topic, but the aforementioned non-fiction on the same topic had a much more hopeful feel. This book imagined a very harsh peek inside the closed up country where every moment of every second of these people's lives was controlled and anxiously unpredictable.
Johnson is a good writer and he put together a feat of a book. I do foresee this potentially being movie material and maybe ending up on some literary lists. I can't really say that I enjoyed the reading experience, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to many people; but I can say, since it's been a couple weeks since I read it, that I can appreciate it a little better now looking back. But that's it.