The Orphan Master’s Son

I’m not really sure I can do justice to this book in a review. Nor can I go the lazy way and share my favorite quotes with you because I had to return it to the library today. Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was named a best book of the year by just about every major newspaper and even won the more quirky Tournament of Books in 2013, I’m not sure why I even feel the need to mention it here on my little ol’ blog anyway.

Probably for the reason that I’m fairly sure that when I look back at the end of the year this will be my best book of the year.

The story is of Jun Do, an North Korean orphan who grows up to be a kidnapper and spy. I don’t really want to give away more of the plot than that. It’s complicated and complex. The things it tells of are horrific and gruesome and sad. I never knew what was going to happen next because I’d never have been able to predict the mind-blowing horror of the North Korean prison camps or the sheer unbelievability of life in a totalitarian state.

My book club read this and when we chose it one of the women (who felt that our previous book was too emotionally difficult) asked, “Is it depressing?” To which we looked at her and said “Well, it is about North Korea.” If you are someone who is very sensitive to scenes of torture or violence I would not read this book.

And yet.

Somehow Johnson manages to tell a story filled with unspeakable evil and make it a page-turner. I don’t know how he does it. It’s never gratuitous in its depiction of violence. He tells you only what needs to be told and nothing more. It’s unbelievable but rings true. There is also a slim thread of redemption and even hope within Jun Do’s story. Not redemption as in happy ending with all the bows tied up neatly. (That’s not a spoiler; no one would ever read this book and think it was going to end happily.) But redemption as in there is a shred of hope for the future. It’s a shred but it’s there.

What more is there to say? Except maybe: Read it.

5 thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son

  1. I just read this with my book group, too, and felt the same. If you’re interested in reading more about everyday life in North Korea, the nonfiction book “Nothing to Envy” is very good. After The Orphan Master’s Son, I found the writing of our next book, Orphan Train, particularly weak by comparison. (I’m not sure I would’ve liked it all that much anyway, but it had a very tough act to follow!)

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