The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a thrilling, stay-up-until-you-can-not-hold-your-eyes-open tale of a young boy who is searching for meaning (and just trying to stay alive) in the most repressive nation of our time.
Set in modern day North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son reads like a futuristic George Orwell novel. I kept reminding myself that this was not science fiction, but a real place. And though there have been questions about how accurate a portrayal one can write of a country that so few have really extensively traveled, if Johnson’s picture is only partially accurate, the horrifying truth is that things in North Korea are worse than I could possibly imagine.
This growing awareness is part of what pulled me into the story. The window into an unknown place is what kept me reading a book filled with haunting torture scenes, starving children and hopeless imprisonments. I usually think of a fast-paced storyline that is filled with brutal interrogations as a man’s man kind of novel. But I was hooked from the first pages by a character that experiences every possible horror the totalitarian regime can produce and yet still manages to believe that somehow the rules can be different for him.
As a boy, his hopes are small but the very fact that he holds on to them at all helps him to rise strong among a constantly terrorized population.
There is a simple exchange in the later half of the book that has stayed with me.
The main character has gone from living as a boy in an orphanage to driving through the nation’s capitol with a well-loved actress. They drive through a cemetery where the actress mentions that the flowers are always stolen from the graves.
He asks her, “Why do you think they steal the flowers?”
“Yes, that’s the question, isn’t it? Who would do that? What’s happening to our country?”
He stole a brief glance, to confirm her disbelief. Had she never been hungry enough to eat a flower? Did she not know that you could eat daisies, daylilies, pansies, and marigolds? That hungry enough, a person could consume the bright face of violas, even the stems of dandelions and the bitter hips of roses?
I stopped to wonder:
How many times have I met someone who glances at me with disbelief because I have said something that reveals my ignorance about a suffering with which they are intimately acquainted?
And I don’t even know it.
Had she never been hungry enough to eat a flower?
Beautifully written, and sweeping in its scope, I will be turning over the events of this novel in my mind for a while.
This quote from The New Republic writer, Ruth Franklin, summed up well how I feel in finishing this heartbreaking book,
To this very short list of exceptional novels that also serve a humanitarian purpose The Orphan Master’s Son must now be added. If North Korea were not a place of current crisis, it would simply be a remarkable book: a little flamboyant perhaps, but carefully structured, packed with big ideas, and bitterly moving. The fact that the hell it describes exists now, even as you read this, makes it the kind of book that ought to keep us all up at night.