Christmas was populated as usual with family and food and happiness but this year I was stealing time from them (often sleep time) to read The Orphan Master’s Son. The book’s an explosion of pain and craziness and love and strange, strange flavors, views from angles few could imagine at a place nobody reading it will likely — thank goodness — ever see.
It dwells amid the horror of the Kim dynasty’s dystopic North Korea; which in my case is a little weird, because the only other book that’s hit me this hard in recent years is Dogs at the Perimeter (more here), rooted in the Khmer Rouge “Year Zero” ravaging of Cambodia’s luckless people. I seem literarily drawn to the bad parts of East Asia.
Tl;dr · The Orphan Master’s Son is in two parts, both about the same North Korean man but with two names. In the first he lives through some of the terrible things you’ve heard about that terrible place, and does some of them; the action in the second shifts to the circles of power and terror surrounding the Dear Leader i.e. the late Kim Jong-Il.
The second half is phantasmagorical; the first gritty.
Author Adam Johnson made a research trip to Pyongyang and, while nobody would call him a North Korea wonk, the real North Korea wonks who reviewed the book were pretty impressed at his capture of the place. Well, in the first half anyhow; once you’ve got Dear Leader playing a role you’re on unknown territory, because nobody really knows much about life in the inner circles.
What’s good · The writing is just amazing, effortlessly flavorful; it’s impossible not to feel that You Are There, and impossible not to care about the people in the grip of the North Korean murder machine.
It’s a big book, but doesn’t drag, not once not ever, oh no. And some of the plot twists will yank you sideways at twelve G’s without even requiring too much suspension of disbelief.
What’s bad · North Korea; its continued existence constitutes a moral failure in the leaders and citizens of the countries that surround it. Any accurate picture you draw of it is gonna be repulsive, obviously; and this is. The details of what starving people eat to live will revolt you, and the details of what happens to people starved systematically of love are worse. But it’s still a good book about a bad place.
There’s a pattern here · I’ve also recently enjoyed and recommended the Inspector O novels, another work painted on a North-Korean backdrop.
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that places which are repulsive, irrelevant to almost everyone, and hard to find about should serve as muses for really fine writers.