Because the hardships of real life in North Korea, described by defectors, can be Kafkaesque in their surreal horror, it’s harder to tell in these pages where Mr. Johnson’s penchant for exaggeration leaves off … The Orphan Master’s Son employs the techniques of magical realism to create a hallucinatory mirror of day-to-day circumstances that in themselves dwarf the imagination … Mr. Johnson does an agile job of combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait.
The Orphan Master’s Son is no more about North Korea than The Merchant of Venice is about Venice under the doges. North Korea is the setting for an imaginary story about a man who gradually, though always dramatically, discovers his own humanity in a state that does everything to suppress it … This is a fantasy, a fiction, a work of literary imagination. That the setting bears a strong resemblance to aspects of life in North Korea gives it an anchor in reality. And the cliché that fiction can cut to deeper truths than fact holds true of this novel too. It tells us something profound about the pathology of the totalitarian state.
Johnson’s novel, far from being too labyrinthine, is an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun. This isn’t entirely a compliment. Should ‘fun’ really be the first word to describe a novel about one of the worst places on earth?... Ultimately, the one rule of art is that you’re permitted anything you can get away with. I raise the question of responsibility with respect to The Orphan Master’s Son because the book itself seems to raise it, and because Johnson’s prodigious talent and inventiveness aren’t enough to silence it. Johnson’s very sense of duty may have been what led him astray.
Intention, significance, purpose: the design of the powerful first part of the novel is full of such qualities, confining the reader within the narrow channel of Jun Do’s consciousness as he is moved like a chess piece by the hidden hand of the state … Whereas the Candide-like picaresque of the first half—with its absurd but fully plausible turns of the screw—persuasively evokes life under brutal totalitarianism, the identity-switching and intrigue of the second part seem to originate in little more than the need to spin a yarn … One could justify the turn that Johnson’s plot takes as magical realism if, in the earlier part, Johnson didn’t insist on realism so consistently and to such devastating effect.
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 … 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 … I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research.
[Johnson] has rendered his world in a surprisingly vivid manner. Every backdrop—from the looming martyrs’ monuments that dot Pyongyang to the flow and cadence of North Korean propaganda radio broadcasts—resonates with verisimilitude … The ‘Dear Leader’ that appears in these pages is ingenious: a trickster, impish and insecure, whose good humor is almost more dangerous and unpredictable than anything else … In The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson has provided a striking sketch of this horrific psychological landscape; he shows that the people of North Korea are victims of a sort of national Stockholm syndrome, by which affection for the trinity of Kims is coerced, yet also strangely heartfelt.
Set during the recently ended reign of Kim Jong Il, the book is a work of high adventure, surreal coincidences and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality … Mr. Johnson is careful to temper the inherent comedy of a nation run according to the whim of someone called Dear Leader, showing us how his power is sustained through depravity and terror. Torture, in this novel, is the most important instrument used by the state to convert fiction into fact—truth is abandoned and lies are adopted, if the object of torture survives.
Woven to the warp and weft of the brutal realities of the most mind-controlled state on the planet, Adam Johnson delivers a literary tour-de-force in The Orphan Master’s Son, a wildly inventive mashup of the thriller, picaresque novel, gulag memoir, love story, ugly-duckling-into-beautiful-swan fairy tale and mythical heroic journey … Stitched together, these details, which are more fantastic than anything thought up by Orwell, make for a compelling background on which to build a novel … The story is told from three different viewpoints, much as if to say that all stories are propaganda, whether you read them in the newspaper, hear them from a government loudspeaker or enjoy them in literary novel form.
Despite its grim subject matter, The Orphan Master’s Son is a wonderfully written and gripping, rich in symbolism, and replete with quirky characters, from the Dear One (leader Kim Jong-il, who died last year) to the latest apple of his eye, a naked American nighttime rower … Besides translating the political anathema that is North Korea into the personal realm, Johnson has penned a ripping good thriller, full of surprises and derring-do, blood and guts, cowardice and heroics. If the action is not always entirely plausible, all is forgiven. The reader wouldn’t have it any other way; and heck, North Korea is so strange, so remote from our experience, who knows what might be possible there.
Trickily, The Orphan Master's Son is both unbound by the truth and indebted to it … Johnson beautifully tempers the horrors of his tale – torture, rape, starvation, pestilence and more – with humor and heart. Part of his balancing act includes showing us not only a thorough, educated guess at North Korea, but also how America might look to a North Korean.
Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research, but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author’s imagination … The Orphan Master’s Son is potent with visions of oppression and generalized fear. Johnson is unflinching (even a bit enthusiastic) rendering torture, but his sensitivity to Jun Do’s resilient spirit makes his work as big-hearted as it is horrifying.
Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds