Fifty pages into Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son I was like, mom, what did you and your book club get me into? It was so bleak! The double whammy of this grim story and the rapidly-graying Chicago skies was leaving me severely depressed. She told me to stick with it, and so I did, and by the end I was crushing the last 200 pages in a solid Sunday afternoon during which I didn’t drink any water lest I have to peel myself off my couch. When I finished, I was out of breath. And I had to pee.
The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young North Korean named Jun Do (now that I think about it, I assume that’s an intentional parallel to the English John Doe….God, this book just gets more and more brilliant.) We meet Jun in an orphanage where, as the orphan master’s son, he decides who dies by hypothermia (sleeping too far from the fire) and who dies by ingesting toxic chemicals (laboring at the paint plant). And it only gets darker.
But Johnson is a master. He holds you underwater–you and Jun Do–only as long as you can take it, and not a moment longer. When you think you have to stop, when you need to put the book down and watch Golden Girls, or go to yoga, or listen to Beyonce, he lets you–you and Jun Do–get a gasp of air before you’re shoved back under. There’s a bright spot, something spectacularly brief, but it’s enough to sustain you for the next round in the dark. It’s Jun Do on a fishing vessel realizing that the multilingual voices he hears sporadically through his radio are astronauts circling the globe every few hours. It’s the elderly woman at the prison camp who shows him how to eat fish eggs out of live fish to stay alive in the dead of winter. It’s the sharing of a can of peaches, a last ditch attempt at dignity and self-determination.
In the second half of Orphan Master, Jun Do emerges from a prison camp with a new identity and a mission to rescue the actress Sun Moon and her children. That dunking game that Johnson is so good at speeds up, pushing you down into an underground interrogation chamber and pulling you up into the warmth of friendship and love. The pace speeds up, careening over these emotional highs and deep into the pits of despair (yes, like Princess Pride). The effect is crazy-making, exhilarating, gut-wrenching…
When it’s all over, you’ll be sitting there on your couch feeling all the feelings and even though you haven’t peed in 200 pages, you won’t want to move. Just sit. Process. Breathe. Wait for the feeling in your toes to come back and your heart rate to settle. It’ll take a minute.
Unrelatedly, have you seen these uncensored Instagrams from North Korea?
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