Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson

Riding a crest of enormous praise, this debut novel by an American man about a North Korean citizen is a worthy achievement, and one I couldn't put down for two days straight. Its numerous twists of plot that in fiction often seem too coincidental, but the reader's sympathy and alignment to the protagonist is deeply enough felt that these happenstances feel mostly believable, and are almost forgivable. The dog, in particular, was over the top for me. The book paints a harsh reality of life under Kim Jong Il, and though I think there is much basis for the events portrayed in this novel, it seems still to be a decidedly Western take. The notorious North Korean extremism of the ideology and the brutality of prison camp life and interrogation techniques are undeniable, and feel thoroughly researched. My 2-star rating of the book relates to its core premise, which over time grew to be more difficult for me to swallow: the desire for freedom portrayed here is a Western sense of freedom; the striving is for an unknown entity of "freedom" by the North Korean people. Though Korea has a long history of oppression and suffering, our Western notion of yearning for freedom cannot be so easily applied to North Korean citizens. I lament how subtleties of Korean language and culture are unable to be captured, and how that lack of authenticity allows situations that would be rare if not impossible in that culture. But the book is a page-turning thriller, with a heroic man living under the pressure of exceptional times, undergoing gradual change that challenges his identity. Some of the characters, like the Captain and Mongyong, as well as minor incidental characters with mere walk-on roles, like the Japanese girl on the pier, are memorable. The telling of this story is structurally interesting (something the Pulitzer committee in the past several years seems to admire), interwoven by DPRK Citizen’s broadcasts, and with shifting points of view to bring in several aspects to present a communal take on an American writer's view of North Korea. I recommend instead the real-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, in the book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden.

NY Times January 15 review

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