The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is the story of Jun Do, an orphan in North Korea whose life takes many unexpected turns. Johnson's novel moves slowly, but remains interesting throughout. The novel has two parts, and throughout the first part I had no idea where the story was going, but I wanted to pick up the book whenever I got the chance. A chapter or two into Part II, I thought, "Surely the story is about to end now. What more could happen?" I was excited and intrigued to realize almost half the book remained. The rest of the book did not disappoint. It provided a long climax and satisfying resolution and did not sacrifice thoughtfulness for pace.
Early on in the book, Jun Do is on a boat talking about a theory he has that the Second Mate thinks is far-fetched. Johnson writes, "It did sound a little paranoid when the Second Mate said it out loud. But the truth was the idea of conspiracy appealed to Jun Do. That people were in communication, that things had a design, that there was intention, significance, and purpose in what people did -- he needed to believe this" (47).
Intention, significance and purpose are things that The Orphan Master's Son gives readers in a surreal way. By the end of the novel characters reappear and loose ends are tied up in an almost unbelievable way. I liked it, but also found myself wondering whether all the parts of a person's life could have such meaning. It almost reminded me of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
The working together of the pieces of Jun Do's life is set in contrast to the randomness and meaninglessness of the severe violence and suffering in North Korea. The torture and suffering Johnson describes is as unbelievable as the coincidences in Jun Do's life, yet much of what was described probably happens every day. Johnson's juxtaposition of real and surreal, purpose and randomness, violence and love is powerful and thought provoking.
Johnson writes passages packed with meaning. I wished I were reading The Orphan Master's Son in an English class so I could take time to unpack certain excerpts with others. I wanted to chew on the implications. This is often true in literary fiction, but I often don't like literary books because I feel like the plot and story are sacrificed for deep prose. This is not the case in The Orphan Master's Son. Sure, the pages are not going to turn as fast as in a James Patterson novel, but readers are given absorbing characters and a story to fall into in addition to deep themes to consider. What more could a reader want?