North Korea and the day to day lives of its citizens is a subject matter that isn’t touched upon often in fiction, for good reason. Adam Johnson puts it eloquently in the afterword to his book The Orphan Master’s Son – “we’ll know the true way to write a novel set in North Korea when North Korean novelists become free to tell their own stories.” That being said, with this book Johnson has created a powerful, emotional tale which feels honest, true to life, and – in keeping with the image most of us have of North Korea – painfully bleak.
We follow the trials and…well, mostly just trials of Pak Jun Do, the titular Orphan Master’s son. Not an orphan himself but burdened with an orphan’s name, we see North Korea through the eyes of one of its lowliest sons as he’s dragged through the mud (often literally) in a seemingly never-ending string of appalling situations. The choices that he has to make in order to survive are truly horrifying in places, but it’s fascinating to watch as his perspective changes over time and as a result of his actions and their consequences. There is very little light to balance the shade, as every time Jun Do attains a measure of peace it’s snatched away from him, but in its place we see a deep strand of black humour that helps him and his fellow characters to cope. The vehemently anti-American propaganda that fills citizens lives, and their bizarrely skewed views on life in the West, are at once genuinely amusing but also rather sad.
This is a long, extended story that covers a large part of Jun Do’s life, and as his situation changes so does the tone of the story. It could have come out disjointed and muddled, but in Johnson’s hands we seamlessly move through adventure, mishap, espionage, love and loss as Jun Do experiences them. It’s all cleverly plotted with events and characters weaving in and out of the story as it progresses, and while the pacing stumbles a little in the second half for the most part it’s compulsive, gripping reading.
This is without doubt a fascinating, heartbreaking story that paints a vivid picture of what life in North Korea might be like. Its veracity of detail feels genuine, but ultimately whether that’s really what things are like is a moot point. Johnson has obviously done his research to try and keep things as true to life as possible, but ultimately this is fiction – harsh and uncompromising though it may be, it’s ultimately a story about the human spirit and how hard we’ll fight to survive. Regardless of where we’re from.