Rob Brunner
January 27, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Orphan Master's Son

Current Status
In Season
Adam Johnson
Random House

We gave it an A

One image that lingered in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s recent death was ordinary North Koreans overcome by grief, breaking down in the street over the loss of the ”Dear Leader” who had terrorized them for years. Could they truly be so sad about the loss of this despot? Were they acting out of fear? Just who were these people and what could their lives possibly be like?

Adam Johnson’s riveting new novel offers an educated guess. The author put a great deal of effort into researching North Korean life, even traveling there in 2007 for a firsthand (if tightly controlled) glimpse. But more than a work of research — who knows how closely his vision matches reality? — his book is a triumph of imagination. Johnson has created such a convincing universe that it doesn’t really matter if he’s accurately captured every detail. It feels real, often terrifyingly so.

The story follows a man named Pak Jun Do, who spends his early years in a harsh orphanage, then gets thrust into a series of wildly improbable adventures (kidnapping Japanese citizens, toiling in a prison mine, meeting North Korea’s most famous propaganda-film actress) that eventually lead to an unforgettable endgame involving canned peaches and Kim Jong Il. Darkness and light are major motifs, and Jun Do’s ability to navigate the blackness — literal and metaphorical — around him helps him endure in a profoundly isolated world where people disappear without warning and nobody seems to have any clue what’s really going on. Johnson seems most interested in questions of identity: what it means to be a human being in a society so dedicated to denying its citizens’ essential humanity. The answers he imagines in The Orphan Master’s Son are both vivid and chilling. A

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