Why "The Orphan Master’s Son" Tops Our List of January’s Best Books
When we heard in late December that Kim Jong-il had died, the news reports felt like an intrusion by the fictional world that many of us at the Amazon Books editorial office had been compulsively descending into each night, a reminder that the surreal, brutal universe Adam Johnson evokes in The Orphan Master’s Son continues to unfold just across the Pacific.
Some of us had devoured the book in the same week, and mornings we'd crane our necks over our cubicle walls to compare progress, discuss the lines that rang in our ears (“If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change”) and favorite characters: beyond the surreptitious audacity of protagonist Jun Do, I was fascinated by his interrogator-torturer who believed himself to be a “biographer,” while Chris was taken with film actress Sun Moon's lovely sadness. When it came time for our "smackdown" meeting and vote on the top 10 Best Books of the Month for January, it was nearly upstaged by the irreverent humor and life-affirming wallop of John Green's hugely anticipated The Fault in Our Stars, but in the end, Johnson's novel edged it out for the spotlight slot.
As any 30 Rock or Team America fan knows, the grand delusions of North Korea’s Dear Leader were ripe for parody, and Johnson almost went that way—until he read the heart-wrenching, emotionally lobotomized testimony of gulag survivors and felt seized by a need to tell the average citizen's story.
Even when you take a flying leap of sympathetic imagination and tour the stealthily acquired news stories littering the Internet, it's impossible for those of us outside North Korea to really know what it must be like to live there—to survive the devastating famine when Soviet aid ended in the late '90s, to fear or endure the most extensive and brutal network of prison camps since Stalin’s reign, to consume the ubiquitous propaganda (broadcast through loudspeakers in each apartment) that leaves even the rare defector convinced of America's imperialist evil. I'm now convinced that the impact on bodies and minds becomes most comprehensible through meticulously researched stories of exceptional emotional nuance, in the form of novels like this. And while illuminating the hidden tunnels beneath this gulag of the mind would have been feat enough, the power of this book reaches beyond that, opening our eyes to the comparatively vast expanse of our own freedom.