Antrim was a fan of Adam’s earlier collection, The Emporium, which he calls “one of the best books of the early aughts, gives it to us with a fiction writer’s eye for detail.” He offers the same praise for Adam’s new novel on life in North Korea, however, he notes, “what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author’s imagination.”
The Orphan Master’s Son is potent with visions of oppression and generalized fear. Johnson is unflinching (even a bit enthusiastic) rendering torture, but hisensitivity to Jun Do’s resilient spirit makes his work as big-hearted as it is horrifying. A few images have haunted me for days—Jun Do, at sea, dazzled by a trans-Pacific cargo ship carpeted with new cars: “the moonlight flashed in rapid succession off a thousand new windshields.” And starving scavengers glimpsed in a government graveyard: “in the long shadows cast by the bronze headstones moved occasional men and women. In the growing dark, these ghostly figures, keeping low and moving quickly, were gathering all the flowers from the graves.”
Nothing here will challenge the prevailing American view of the DPRK—a human nightmare, deserving of its pariah status—but Johnson’s novel is rich with a sense of discovery nevertheless. The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012.