…it has to be The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.
When I wrote in my recent review of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behaviour, that it would take a really special book to knock it off the top my list of favourite reads for 2013, I didn’t expect one to come along so soon.
The Orphan Master’s Son was actually published last year and my attention was drawn to it in the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Fiction for 2012 list. I made a note of it at the time and downloaded the Kindle version recently.
Set in North Korea during Kim Jong Il’s reign, it is the story of orphan Pak Jun Do, who is variously a tunnel fighter in the DMZ, a kidnapper and a radio interceptor on board a fishing ship at sea. It is also a chilling portrayal of the 1984 world that is present day North Korea.
However, the novel is not as grim and depressing as you might expect. In fact some parts of it are very funny and others are heartbreakingly sad. It has scenes of gross brutality, but beauty and self sacrifice too.
Some of my favourite writers were also taken with the book.
David Mitchell writes that it is “An addictive novel of daring ingenuity; a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty; and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love. A brave and impressive book.”
Zadie Smith writes “The Orphan Master’s Son performs an unusual form of sorcery, taking a frankly cruel and absurd reality and somehow converting it into a humane and believable fiction. It’s an epic feat of story-telling. It’s thrillingly written, and it's just thrilling period.”
I totally agree with David Mitchell, Zadie Smith and the following critic, whoever he is:
“I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece.” —Charles Bock
Let it be noted that The Orphan Master’s Son is destined to be a classic, cult, or otherwise, and it’s a rare thrill to discover such a marvellous new writer.
The Orphan Master’s Son has joined my list of all time favourite books. This time, while reading the novel, I realised that it was the first time I was reading a novel I would reread over and over again, and savoured it as such. You never re-experience that thrill of reading a masterpiece for the first time, ever again, though subsequent readings reveal new insights and depths unseen initially.
You can get the physical book very cheaply in Australia. I found a copy of the paperback at The Book Grocer for $10.00, as a present for a friend, though I have sourced and have purchased a signed hard cover first edition for myself.