I don't even know how to begin to describe this book. It won the 2013 Pulitzer prize for fiction. So there's that. Okay, the story is about Pak Jun Do, the son of an orphan master (as if you hadn't already figured that one out) in North Korea. As the son of an orphan master he is afforded a few special privileges such as deciding which orphan gets sent out on life-or-death missions. The reader never actually meets the Orphan Master. One day Jun Do is volunteered for kidnapping missions. This he does for a few years until he is taught English and is given a spot spying on radio transmissions over the Pacific ocean on a fishing boat. Jun Do has a lot of interesting adventures, and truth be told, the first half of the book is just backstory and character development for the second half of the story. Eventually our hero ends up in a prison camp where he encounters a national hero and has a lot more interesting and complicated adventures.
The story is interspersed with commentary dispensed by the author himself speaking to the reader directly, by loudspeakers. This I thought was a really brilliant narrative technique on the part of the author. Then you have the matter of the main character being a somewhat unreliable narrator. Oh, and there are plenty of characters to keep straight, some of which I had to flip back and forth trying to remember where I last encountered this character or another which made the story sometimes slow reading. Finally, the point of view in the second half switches between several characters to tell a story partly out of order. In the end, it's all wrapped up very neatly with no loose ends. It took me a while to read this book, but I really, really liked it. It held a certain power over me for several days and made for very compelling reading. Only after reading it could I tell why it had won the Pulitzer prize, as Mr. Johnson's writing is top-notch and will leave you wondering where the line between fact and fiction is.
This book. So, Adam Johnson did his research. He read all kinds of first-hand accounts of the lucky people who have escaped from North Korea. Based on those accounts and a lot of imagination, he made a long list of horrible things that could happen in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, then he figured out how to fit every single one of those atrocities into a novel. The title character is an orphan (or not, depending on who you believe), turned tunnel fighter, turned kidnapper, turned translator/spy, turned hero, turned prisoner, turned... Well, you get the idea, and I don't want to spoil the second half of the book.
The subject matter sounds bleak, and Johnson successfully creates the dark feel that one can only imagine a totalitarian state must have. And yet, it's funny. This is dark, dark, politically satirical humor at its best. Part of me wanted to not like this novel, because of the endless list of "atrocities to include" that I mentioned above, but I couldn't help but get sucked in. Johnson managed to make me laugh at the same time that chills were running down my spine. Kim Jong-Il made his job much easier, of course. How many real-life characters could be both utterly ridiculous and terrifying at the same time?
Johnson's plotting is equally as artful as his prose. I found myself flipping backward through the novel and then smacking myself in the forehead as I pieced together the little clues he scattered through-out the second half of the book. I felt the second half was much stronger than the first, with multiple points of view (including a propagandized version of events broadcast through loud-speakers), alternating time-lines, etc., but I don't think it would have been as strong without the more straight-forward narrative of the first half to set the stage.