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Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on September 26, 2014 in Articles and Reviews |

It’s always the little people who suffer, not those of smaller stature, but the ordinary folk, the workers, those who keep a country functioning by their hard work and dedication in the face of all odds. Within those masses there are those who stand out, and those who are singled out for better, or for worse. A small enclave of civilization within the greater mass of population, the outsiders. Adam Johnson’s book takes one of these singular people, a young orphan from one of the many State orphanages in North Korea, and creates an at times unbelievable story around his life: the beginnings with poverty and a hard life within the forced-work regime of a state-run home through to a form of fame and fortune. For this work, Johnson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and it is very clear why.

Viktoria Michaelis: North Korea

Photo Credit: RNW.orgCreative Commons

Trying to place a character into surroundings which are so alien to most readers is, normally, the work of the fantasy or science-fiction writer. They create worlds outside of our grasp, on the peripheral of our imaginations, and populate them with all manner of weird and wonderful creatures, with strange rites and rituals, with customs and lives beyond what we would normally see or experience. There are, though, also such worlds within our own, where the imagination needs to be stretched to attain belief, where actions and living styles are so foreign to us that we cannot accept them as being more than a work of fiction. North Korea is one such country, a land many believe they know about, but which has many hidden facets which never come out, which remain locked within the closed borders and behind the restrictions of a very secretive ruling party. What we read in the news, predominantly the rantings and threats of a dictator unable to accept the devastating truth of his country’s plight, is merely a gloss over reality.

Whilst this is a work of fiction, Adam Johnson breathes so much life into his words that we can see and believe North Korea has such people within its ranks. We understand, through a first-hand recounting, the troubles of the times, the struggle of ordinary people to survive on a daily basis, the madness that decrees who should live and who should die with the stroke of a pen. We see the power struggles at all levels, the bureaucracy of those with little power, the fawning of those wishing to remain in some semblance of favor.

While some aspects of this wonderful tale may beg imagination, stretch our conception of reality beyond its normal bounds, Adam Johnson weaves his words in such a way that we can follow everything, can see how madness pitted against madness works, can follow the life of a single person, fighting against the corruption and selfishness from the lowest levels through to the highest powers. At times with humor but always with an eye on accurate description, Adam Johnson has brought a world within our world before our eyes, and shows us what it can be like to live, to fight against, a regime filled with corruption and the need for personal gain, against the odds, and still succeed, if only in a small way, to live and survive.

Published by Random House. ISBN 978 0 812 98262 6.

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