(2012) #30: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son



Narrated by Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, James Kyson Lee, Adam Johnson

19:22 hours

Published by Random House Audio in January 2012

This audiobook counts for the following Reading Challenges:




I have to be careful what I choose to read, as I can be very sensitive to some violent topics. I hesitated about reading The Orphan Master’s Son, but some other bloggers so highly recommended it that I tried. I was far from being disappointed.

I have never been to North Korea, and even if I went, I’m sure what I would see as a tourist would have nothing much to do with the daily life of the inhabitants. So I cannot know from facts, but this book sounds so rooted in reality, alas, that I had to remind myself so many times that it was actually  a novel, not a non-fiction work.  Through the story of Jun Do, the author deals so well with the themes of truth and propaganda, self-identity and pseudo-identity, especially as Jun Do’s life is recounted from 3 different perspectives, one being the propagandist loud speaker of the regime, and as he adopts someone else’s identity to survive; life and death, survival, friendship and treason, and manipulation. Adam Johnson manages such a great balance between all these themes, including some romance, this is really impressive.

There IS some physical violence, in the torture rooms where the citizens are interrogated for instance, but these passages are written with tact. The psychological violence of it all is more pervasive, with the blaring screens in the daily life, and the message they impose of the people.

The team of narrators does a fantastic job. They make it extremely lively, giving really the feeling of constant tension for those who live there. This is what I perceived most through the narration, and it sure did help to make it sound as real, not fictional.
My only little problem with one narrator, was that he sounded to me like David Sedaris’ voice, and of course here in this context nothing is comic at all. But this is only because of the stupid head and ears of mine, who kept associating these two voices.


An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers. [Goodreads]

Several books have been recently written on North Korea, both in fiction and non-fiction. If you want to read more about these, I suggest you read this great post by Devourer of Books.


Adam Johnson is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow who teaches at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. He is the author of Emporium, a short story collection and the novel, Parasites Like Us, which won the California Book Award.

Devourer of Books
Books On The Nightstand
Booklover Book Reviews




18 thoughts on “(2012) #30: The Orphan Master’s Son

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    • I think it will for me too. Its characters are so true to life, you feel like you know them, you have met them. I can’t wait to read other books by Adam Johnson.
      In these days where the publishing industry is suffering, I am amazed at the number of great NEW authors we have!
      Oh it reminds me, this is so weird, but I dreamed of you last night, that you were giving birth to your twins. I have no idea where this is coming from, I had not linked anything to your site yesterday, and I don’t usually dream of other co-bloggers!!


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  6. I feel like the violence wasn’t so much tactful as glossed over, the way all the horrors in the book are. Killing, torture, kidnapping, etc. I had to slow down and think about what wasnt being said, which made me enjoy the reading experience more, in the end.


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  9. I am listening to this right now and am mesmerised. Given the subject matter I don’t think ‘enjoying’ is the right word, but ‘appreciating’ it is probably closer to the mark. I agree with you, the writing is so ‘fresh’ that it’s hard not to assume all that is described is the reality… suppose most of us will never know… thankfully…


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