A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mache creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable.
This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz. The setting in remote North Korea is oddly more timely because of the recent death of Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader” whose malign spirit hovers over the story like a dark fog. The country’s baby-faced new leader, Kim Jong Eun, the second son of the opera star who was his father’s third spouse, seems almost to walk out of these pages as one of Johnson’s characters; I hope CIA analysts read literary fiction.
Johnson’s book is an audacious act of imagination: an intimate narrative about one of the most closed nations on Earth, a place so shuttered that it concealed the Dear Leader’s death for more than 24 hours. Yet the setting is precisely rendered. The reader feels as if he is in Chongjin, where starving people ate the bark off trees; or atop Mount Taesong with the elite of Pyongyang, whose existence is a mix of sadism and whimsy; or with the masses who are bombarded day and night with the propaganda of North Korea’s alternate reality.