The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was the Pulitzer winner for 2013. The book is set in two parts and it feels like two separate stories. Part I is about an adult orphan, Jun Do, from North Korea whose adventures include working for the state as a kidnapper of Japanese citizens, a signal operator on a ship, and part of a diplomatic delegation to the Unites States. In one scene, Jun Do is ripped apart by sharks and his wounds are cared for by the wife of a crewman. Adam Johnson creates a sense of abject wonder and ache in Jun Do. Compassion is a foreign concept as much as family or love.
The tension between North Korea and United States in the book is matched in the newspapers one reads today—it’s scary how Adam Johnson speculative fiction is completely plausible. Johnson includes historical facts into his story like the famous North Korean actress, Son Moon. Locked away like a pretty bird in a gilded cage as property of the government, Jun Do has a crush on his idol. In part II, Jun Do assumes the identity of replacement husband. Over time, their love blossoms. Their relationship is the best part of the book, and Jun Do’s daring escape out of the country is great fiction.
There’s an interesting interview in the Miami Herald about Adam Johnson’s making of the novel. You can read it here:
In it, Adam Johnson describes the situation in North Korea today:
“No one would make a joke about Rwanda. We can joke about North Korea. The North Koreans are never going to hear that because they’re sealed off. They’re not able to respond to a free cheap shot from the world. We look at the regime as evil or clownish, but 23 million people are unfortunately born under this bizarre regime. … It’s the cruelest psychological experiment ever cooked up by humans. There are bigger tragedies in the world — it’s nothing like the Cultural Revolution or Stalin’s gulag system. But nothing else has ever come close to what’s happening there.”
In the book, Johnson creates a believable setting. Having visited North Korea, it is technologically in the dark compared to South Korea. “The poor North Koreans escape and think their problems are over, but they’re not. North Korea has yet to invent the stoplight and the phone book. To travel there is to travel back in time, like going to Cuba in the 1950s. They have no technology. They can barely keep the lights on. So when people make it to the South, they make it to one of the most modern cities on the planet.” I appreciated how Adam Johnson uses contrast to set up two neighboring cultures diverse and yet connected through history. Through Jun Do, universal themes like love and the need for human connection are the bridge between disparate worlds.