A hard book to read. And not just because of the subject. Adam Johnson switches narrators. Not the way Wilkie Collins switches narrators, he even switches the characters, they become someone completely different and then they are themselves again. You never know who is who.
However, it is still worth reading this book. The insight it gives into North Korean life is immense. And the reason the book is so confusing is probably because this sort of life is so confusing. Pak Jun Do grows up in an orphanage, even though he still has his father but he is the orphan master. Jun Do ("John Doe" in Korean) joins the military and from there his way is as weird as the whole book. He is sent on kidnapping missions to Japan as well as diplomatic trips to Texas, then he takes over the place of an important politician and is married to that person's wife.
The further you get into the book, the more you realize how disturbing life in a dictatorship can be. I remember a trip to a castle in my school years where we were shown the torture chambers with the remark that this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. Well, if you read this book (or other books about countries like this), you are amazed at how many ways men can find to mistreat and torture other human beings. It is incredible.
So, not a book for the light-hearted and not a book you wish to read in a day or two, hardly any page that is not grasping at your belief in the goodness of human nature, hardly a page where you can gather some hope for the poor souls who have to live in these circumstances.
Of course, the author has never lived in North Korea, only visited it once and that was probably not a visit where he could freely roam and talk to just anybody, so I guess we have to rely on what research he did in any other way. I still believe that this is not purely fiction.
From the back cover: "An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, 'The Orphan Master’s Son' follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer 'stolen' to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
Considering himself 'a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,' Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress 'so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.'
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, 'The Orphan Master’s Son' is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, 'The Orphan Master’s Son' ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers."
Adam Johnson received the Pulitzer Prize for "The Orphan Master's Son" in 2013.