Books: “The Orphan Master’s Son”, reviewed by James Church

[James Church is the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of the DPRK, who has authored four “Inspector O” mystery novels set in North Korea. There seems to be much excitement about a new novel by Adam Johnson that purports to be a “window into North Korea”. Adam Johnson is a creative writing teacher at Stanford University known mostly for short stories published by a wide range of magazines from Paris Review to Esquire. He has no North Korean experience whatsoever, except for one visit to Pyongyang as a tourist, but has reportedly spent the past six years working on what would become “The Orphan Master’s Son”. His second novel, this book follows a fictional young man’s journey through fictional tunnels and torture chambers of a fictional North Korea. The main character is the son of a kidnapped singer and an influential master of a work camp for orphans. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do (John Doe?) comes to the attention of superiors in the state and rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper and … well, there’s violence, romance, and eventually heroism, as well as reconfirmation of all the cliches about the horrors of life in the DPRK. –CanKor]

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON, by Adam Johnson. Random House Publishing Group, 2012. 464 pp. US$30.00 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8129-9279-3 (0-8129-9279-2). This review by James Church was first published by our partner-site 38North under the title “The Orphan Master’s Son”: No Window.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)

The range of topics for authors is endless, the techniques of story telling as diverse as the stars in the sky, limited only by what eyes can see—with or without reading glasses—and the public’s brain can comprehend.

All of this applies in spades to Adam Johnson’s new book, The Orphan Master’s Son. Many readers are blown away by its pyrotechnic, shape-shifting, picaresque (choose one or all) approach. It may, indeed, be the best book of the year. The reviews are stellar. All the same, there is a little-noted fly in this ointment, and it is this: For some reason someone decided somewhere along the line to sell the book as a window into North Korea.

That, decidedly, it is not.

If readers like the writing, like the plot twists, like the characters, then good on them. But the book is packaged, touted, and sold as “insight” into North Korea. Someone ought to stand up and gently point out that it isn’t. It might as well be me. I’ve written a few stories set in North Korea, and I’m happy for some company. Let me be clear. What I’m mainly concerned about here is the sales pitch, not the book itself.

We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. That would be the end of the problem, except he doesn’t follow through and simply clam up on the subject in his public remarks. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances? That’s a dilemma, but solving it by letting North Korea be the sizzle for the book isn’t the answer. That may be the publicists’ idea. It may simply have been a decision that came out of thin air. No doubt, it wasn’t such a difficult decision to make. If no one knows anything about North Korea, if everyone is equally ignorant, then there is no danger, and certainly no harm, in taking everyone for a nice ride, is there? Read the rest of this entry »

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