living hell: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Three years ago Barbara Demick’s penetrating journalistic skills revealed the ever-present desperation of North Korean life in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Now comes Adam Johnson with an equally brilliant book, a novel, that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.

Johnson’s Orwellian story surveys life in an orphanage; the experience of a tunnel rat, trained in hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea; espionage and kidnapping trips to Japan in “fishing boats”; the life and lifestyle of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself; the vain efforts of an official torturer to retain his humanity; and the semblance of life that is existence in a North Korean prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground with picks and shovels.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012) 459 pages ★★★★☆

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Johnson’s themes are the loss of identity in a setting where every aspect of life is controlled from above; the disparity between truth and propaganda; and the struggle between love and loyalty.

The experience of reading this complex and wide-ranging tale is shattering. It took me twice as long to finish this book as it might ordinarily have done, because so very often I had to set it aside to catch my breath or stanch the tears that threatened to come. I was deeply moved by Barbara Demick’s book. Adam Johnson’s novel upended me, with its unsparing portrayal of the extremes of pain and degradation to which the North Korean people are subjected.

Adam Johnson is a San Francisco short story writer and novelist who teaches creative writing at Stanford. He spent three years researching this novel, including a trip to North Korea, where he visited several cities and learned first-hand what life is like under a truly totalitarian regime.

For additional reading

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19 as well as on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.

This is one of 7 good books about North Korea reviewed on this site.

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