Tuesday, February 21, 2012

{read: don't miss this one!} The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This is the story of the book I almost didn't read. The title didn't draw me in, I didn't like the cover, and the fact that it was set in North Korea put it low on my to-read list. Yet the good reviews kept piling up, so I put it on my library hold list. When it came in, it sat on my shelf until the day before it was due. Finally I picked it up to see if I wanted to read it or if I should just return it. Pak Jun Do and his story captured my imagination, and the story grew stronger as the book went along. (I had to pay 30 cents in late fees, but it was well worth it.)

This book is remarkable for the glimpse it provides of bleak North Korean life and the harsh regime, which at times reminded me of the Cold War and at other times reminded me of the Nazi death camps. Yet parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the descriptions of American life and especially American blues music. In other places, unexpected honesty contradicts the propaganda and party line that you expect all citizens to espouse. I think one of the triumphs of the book is Johnson's ability to flesh out the characters to explore how they deal with the daily struggle of life under the Dear Leader and still retain their humanity. The plotting is understated yet crafty, as pieces of the first half of the book take on a larger significance in the second half than you expected when you first encountered them.  

The Orphan Master's Son is definitely a contender for the best book for 2012. It's by far the best book I've read this year and perhaps the best one I've read in the past 12 months. If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

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