There was so much hype about this book when it was first published. I added it to my library queue and forgot about it. (In a somewhat related note, don't you wish library queues were like Netflix, and you could only have so many things out at once before getting anything else? Then I wouldn't end up with the problem I have this month of too many books with long waitlists that can't be renewed showing up at once. Yes, there are ways to put requests on hold, but that means I have to, you know, remember to actually do that.)
I wondered if all the hype would prove fatal, but no. People--I love this book. I could hardly put it down.
The Orphan Master's Son is the story of Pak Jun Do, a North Korean whose mother, a singer, was "stolen" to Pyongyang, so he grows up with his father, who runs a work camp for orphans. Jun Do himself rises through the ranks to eventually become a professional kidnapper. As he matures and becomes involved in increasingly violent and political snares, he also comes closer to the "national actress", Sun Moon, who is loved by none other than Dear Leader Kim Jung Il, but who is married to Commander Ga, a man who dances a very dangerous dance around the Dear Leader. But there's also a young interrogator who is trying new methods of gleaning information from prisoners, in direct competition to the old-school pubyok, which relies heavily on horrific torture techniques to extract information.
So: there's violence. There's political intrigue. There's romance. Most of all, there's North Korea, a world I know little about other than the tidbits that show up periodically in the news. But if author Adam Johnson's written world is correct, this is a frightening place where so much as a glance in the wrong direction can have deadly consequences. It's a place where allegiance to the Dear Leader is demanded and constantly tested. Yet it is also a place where there can be moments of beauty and love--even if they're fleeting and dangerous.
Johnson is tremendously skillful at bringing this world to life without ever losing sight of the fact that what we really want to know about is the people. Jun Do, Sun Moon, Commander Ga, the interrogator, even Kim Jung Il--all are fully fleshed out and struggling to balance their very human needs against the backdrop of oppression and torture.
And the writing is wonderful, often heartbreaking. The interrogator lives with his blind parents, who have grown so fearful of their offspring that they only talk in platitudes about the Dear Leader. The interrogator suspects they're faking the blindness to keep themselves distant from him, and he begs them to tell him the truth. His mother responds: "Our eyes do not work. That is the answer to your question. But then as now, we do not need sight to see what you have become."
I guess I got a two-fer with this book: not only did I love it, but it actually more than fulfilled the hype.