Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

title: The Orphan Master's Son
author: Adam Johnson
pages: 443
genre: literary fiction
published:  Due out January 10th, 2012
source:  I received an Advanced Readers Copy from Random House
 in exchange for an honest review.

Close your eyes. Imagine, if you will, a country whose only law is the whim of its leader, a leader so self-aggrandizing and delusional that he would ask his people to believe that even the country's doves are patriotic enough to take a bullet for him.   A country that has installed mandatory loudspeakers in every home, loudspeakers that provide a constant barrage of propaganda and lies.  A country where anyone can be picked up off the street at end time and sent into the fields to perform hard labor.  A country where parents' fear can overshadow the love they feel for a child.  

Welcome to Adam Johnson's North Korea.

In an interview with Richard Powers, Johnson says the following:

"...North Korea is real.  And to read the agonizing accounts of its victims is like swallowing stones.  One of the striking things about these accounts is how much is missing--there's often little emotion, reflection, or expressions of personal desire.  Which brings us back to trauma narratives, a hallmark of which is the way their narrators can get stuck in a kind of survival mode that takes precedence over voice, memory, and insight.  When life is about survival, rather than being human, people are less able to speak in terms of yearning, growth, discovery, change and so on.  How do you gain a deeper understanding of a person who's been taught that expression is dangerous and that emotions can get you killed?  What do you do when the only person who can tell a story is the least able to do so? This is where the limits of nonfiction become visible.  And it's where we must turn to fiction, which focuses on what deprivation does to identity, memory and basic humanity."

The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of the role of identity and memory and it's affect on an individual's humanity, as well as the collective humanity and identity of a nation.  Johnson weaves the tale of the incredible life Pak Jun Do and his trials as pseudo-orphan, kidnapper, soldier, state spy and later, master impersonator.  

Love story, thriller, coming of age story, this book was EVERYTHING and has all the elements I look for in my literature: 
  • lyrical prose
  • compelling and dynamic characters
  • strong narrative voice
  • inspiring plot and electric actions
The world Johnson creates is so bizarre, so cruel, so dangerous that it's hard to look away.  I especially loved the second half of the book, where Johnson drops a giant talent bomb on the reader and demonstrates his absolute command of narrative and voice.  Each character, each moment WORKS in a way I haven't experienced in a piece in a long time.  When it comes out in January, move The Orphan Master's Son to the top of your "to read" pile!

Rubric rating: 8.  I will definitely be checking out Johnson's other works: Emporium, a short story collection, and his novel, Parasites Like Us

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