Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master’s Son
By Adam Johnson
(Random House, Hardcover, 9780812992793, January 2012, 464pp.)

The Short of It:

This is the book that derailed my writing for six weeks!! I was caught-up in the adventure of reading it, but as a story, its meandering quality prevented me from loving it, AND at the time, made it almost impossible for me to write about IT, or anything.

The Rest of It:

The title is misleading. Jun Do (John Doe) lives in an orphanage in Chongjin, North Korea. He is introduced to us as the Orphan Master’s son, so in theory, he is not an orphan and constantly reminds the reader of this. However, he is treated like an orphan and given a name from a list of martyrs so you have to assume that he is, in fact, an orphan.

When the orphanage begins to lose its battle to famine, Jun Do is enlisted into the army. There, he performs missions in tunnels operating under zero-light conditions. The fact that he spends so much time in the dark is not a coincidence. This is North Korea after all. Anyway, after this adventure he gets a job translating  radio transmissions, ends up in Texas, makes friends with a senator’s wife… kidnaps people and let’s not forget when he switches identity with Commander Ga, a national hero.

This was a bizarre read. Bizarre, but utterly fascinating. I liked Jun Do. I think that is why I decided to stay with him, no matter what he was doing, or what was going on around him. I knew I liked him when he kidnapped people and somehow, I still felt sympathy for him. Is he taken advantage of? Is that why I felt sorry for him? No. I never once felt that he was ever taken  advantage of, but he moves with the times. He continues to move forward no matter what is thrown at him and although he cannot be considered a hero, I did find his resiliency to be admirable.

Although there isn’t too much said about Kim Jong il, he is present throughout the novel. The translated radio broadcasts, which in reality function as a form of brain washing and a way to spread propaganda, are peppered throughout. I was constantly reminded of who was in charge and it gave a very 1984-esque tone to the novel. This, I very much enjoyed.

What I enjoyed less, was the meandering nature of the story itself. Jun Do was here, there…heck he was everywhere. There are girls on boats, there’s fishing… there are famous singers and girls getting sent to Pyongyang, ultimately, to be prostitutes. There’s even a famous actress whose shine is just beginning to wear off (think Sunset Boulevard). This was the perfect example of too much.

Even though there was a lot going on, I zipped through this book, only to sit and wonder what the heck I’d say about it. It was surreal and sometimes reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s writing, but the payoff wasn’t as good and it took me weeks to sort through my feelings. I do like a book that forces me to think, but I’m not sure the author’s goal was to completely put a halt to my everyday life. THAT is how much I thought about this book.

Now here you are, wondering if you should read it. If you are the type of reader who likes to work through a book and not have things handed to you on a silver platter, then you might enjoy this book. If you like adventure, then there is plenty of that to be found within its pages. And I have to say, I did enjoy Jun Do’s character although I never did figure him out. The book itself was a fast read and quite different from anything I’ve read before. That’s saying something, right?

Source: Sent to me by the publisher via Net Galley.
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

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39 thoughts on “Review: The Orphan Master’s Son”

  1. I downloaded this one on audio, and I do have to admit that I am intrigued, but I am not sure I am up for a book that so disrupts my world! It does indeed sound like there is a lot here to think about, and since I tend to love the bizarre in books, I can imagine that I would probably like this one. I just have to make sure I have enough time for it! Very enticing and ultimately ensnaring review today, Ti! I enjoyed reading your complicated reactions to this one!

    1. I’m not really sure why it disrupted me so. It was well written, had an engaging protagonist and was adventurous AND ambitious. Maybe it’s just because I don’t normally read such politically charged books. I found myself having to concentrate more while reading it. Listening to it would be fun though.

  2. Ti, great post on a book that derailed you 🙂 I can see why you had that reaction – there is alot going on (WOW). I’m not sure I’ll be picking up this book, because even though I do like books that make you work to understand them, this one just doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy unraveling. I’m glad you posted about it though – I was wondering what you’d write about it.

  3. This has been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for weeks, I picked it up once, but it looked dauntingly solid but your review has me intrigued, now. Maybe I’ll give it a go next – well, next after all the review stuff I still have to read. 😉

    1. Yes! Do get to it if you can. I have a number of review books to get to myself, so I know it’s hard to work them in sometimes.

  4. Hmmmm, I’m not sure. I don’t really like meandering in a book. My library does have this one on audio though and I have it on my wishlist for someday listening. Maybe listening would be easier than reading?

  5. I have the downloaded audio book via Heather, but haven’t listened yet. I am not totally sure about wandering on audio. It takes a pretty strong will and serious concentration to wander with your ears. But it DOES sound kinda wacky and fascinating. For what it is worth, I think you did an excellent job of summarizing!!

    1. It was rather wacky and fascinating. I think its audio success would ultimately depend on the reader. I mean, when I was reading, I wasriveted. It was too bizarre a story not to be.

  6. I think you wrote a great review. I’m not sure if I will read this book but if I do it will be for Jun Do. it sounds like the author wrote the book to write about Jun Do and wanted to put him in as many varied and strange situations as possible, many to show what a capable and amazing man he is?!….running through dark tunnels in North Korea one minute, talking with a senator’s wife in Texas the next and kidnapping people….sounds extreme and varied to me. Now I understand why, although I felt I saw it listed in the sidebar of many blogs, I didn’t find many reviews about it! I’m very glad you enjoyed this book. You read a great variety of books and very interesting ones, too!

  7. Interesting review…thanks for being honest. The Orphan Master’s Son has received lots of publicity and I’ve been meaning to read it sooner than later (even checked it out of the library), but still haven’t read it. I probably will eventually, but there are others I’d rather read first. I’m not a huge fan of reading an author’s rambling ideas…i.e. Haruki Murakami’s writing style.

    1. I can’t remember if I responded or not… Murakami’s writing is more cohesive and surreal. The surreal nature of Orphan is what reminded me of Murakami but they are quite different as far as style.

  8. I don’t necessarily like silver platters, but this one was really difficult for me! If this is what Haruki Murakami is like I’m even more intimidated! I completely agree with the meandering thing… I just didn’t get it. But the broadcast stuff was definitely crazy.

    1. The surreal part reminded me a little of Murakami, but M’s writing is lovely and his characters are so interesting. He’s great. I am a huge fan.

  9. Meandering….hmmm, I’m not sure if this will keep me engaged or not. But I did see it on my library’s new release shelf so I might pick it up at some point.

  10. I think I will put this lower on my totem pole of things to read… & perhaps get to it eventually. Thanks for your honest review.

    1. The transitions from adventure to adventure are not all that great. That is when I would lose the story, but once he gets to where he is going, I was pretty riveted. I can’t say the style changes later on, because it’s pretty much the same pattern.

  11. Your review actually makes me give this book more consideration than I had before. Just from reading the synopsis I had previously decided to pass on this book. I know it’s not what I’m in the mood for right now, but might consider it in the future.

  12. Ti, your review does not help me decide whether I’m smart or foolish for letting this title I pre-ordered languish on my Kindle! I think I’ll try to squeeze this one in this summer, when my brain will let me focus on one book. (And great review by the way–I was just hoping for clear ‘read it now!’ or ‘don’t bother!’) 😉

    1. When you read it, you’ll see why I was unable to give a clear recommendation. Personally, knowing what you like…I think you will like it but it really depends on the reader and how willing they are to just go with it.

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