Yesterday, the day I finished Adam Johnson's amazing new novel The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), the website of The Washington Post ran an item stating that North Koreans "who did not seem genuine or profuse enough in their crying" over the death of "their 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-Il" were to be punished, including "six months in a labor training or reeducation camp". The North Korean government press agency called this a "smear," pointing out "that even bears and magpies mourned the death of their Dear Leader."
I mention this because it so perfectly typifies the world described in the book, a world filled with punishments and tortures for any number of real or imagined offenses but also one dominated by a kind of government-imposed fiction, drummed into the population through loudspeakers found everywhere, and inevitably made true. But this book is not written by a North Korean (the author is American, a professor at Stanford) and at the beginning one is naturally suspicious — how does he know what he is talking about, what qualifies him to be saying the things he does?
Jun Do gradually makes his way, alone, on the fringes of the society, doing different sorts of illicit work for the government, including a number of kidnappings in Japan. His adventures at one point take him as part of a government delegation to Texas—Johnson's comic timing here is masterful — but shortly thereafter take him to one of the regime's hideous prisons.
But by the second part of the book he has escaped and finds himself living with the beautiful actress Sun Moon and her children, and hobnobbing with some of the highest officials in the realm, including the Dear Leader himself. This of course cannot last — in some part because the Dear Leader is himself infatuated with Sun Moon — and the protagonist’s inevitable downfall is told in three brilliantly overlapping voices: one the author's, another an anonymous "Interrogator" working for the secret police, and the third the voice of the broadcast telling the "Best North Korean Story of the Year."
Make no mistake: these are not stick figures, but real flesh and blood characters (not least Kim Jong-Il himself), and the love story at the center is wonderfully intense and beautifully told. This is a book that will gather a tremendous amount of attention: please be among the first to read it.
— Jeremy Nussbaum