Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Title: The Orphan Master’s Son
Author: Adam Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Edition: Trade Paperback, 443 pages



Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother – a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang – and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the North Korean state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looks like.”

In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.



What an adventure. Despite all the things we don’t know about the inner workings of North Korea – or because we don’t know – it was quite easy to fall into the story and believe the North Korea that is set up in this novel. Adam Johnson flawlessly puts together a brilliant story about a young North Korean man – his upbringing, his training, and his final rebellion. Although in the west, we condemn the communist government, within the novel, we allow ourselves to be a little more understanding. Of the fact that the people living under this control truly have no choice and were brought up within a culture that dictates different behaviours and morality.

The story itself was slow at times, quick-paced at others. I found myself gasping with horror in certain parts and also quickly coming to the realization that some of those horrors truly do occur in other places of the world. Dispersed within the novel are the government announcements that all citizens of North Korea are required to listen – basically government propaganda – and it provides such a great reflection of North Korea and serves as a contrast to the story we read as well. Johnson weaves a story of contrasts – and it is up to the readers to differentiate what is fact and what is facts but twisted for a purpose.

The Orphan Master’s Son is a brilliant novel and I highly recommend it to everyone!


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