The Orphan Master's Son

  • by Adam Johnson
  • Narrated by Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, James Kyson Lee, Adam Johnson
  • 19 hrs and 22 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2013
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
From the Hardcover edition.

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What the Critics Say



Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
“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 - The Orphan Master’s Son is a brave and impressive book.” (David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet)
“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, author of Beautiful Children)
“Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters, whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

The most compelling listen I've ever owned

I've been an Audible subscriber since the beginning (1999). There are over 500 books in my library. This is the most compelling story I have ever heard. I seriously couldn't turn it off.

To say it is the journey of one man through the "Looking Glass" that is the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, doesn't do it justice. Johnson draws characters that make you feel the oppression of life under that regime. He's obviously done serious study of the North Korean people and culture. The people of this book will live in my thoughts for a long time.

And Johnson addresses this tale with a light touch. It's not maudlin or morose. But it is haunting.

The performances by the readers is equal to this work. The producers uses a very interesting switch at a critical point in this story that brings everything into focus. No spoiler - you'll know it when it happens. But the production makes this recording nothing short of brilliant.

Don't bother to hold the voting this year. I can tell you who wins the Audie.
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- Lisa

A Nightmarish Orwellian Dimension

You are going on a journey; insert your ear buds, and be prepared to step into a vortex of imaginative chaos, oppression, corruption, cruelty--you will wonder if you need to check your navigation...is this Johnson's novel about No. Korea, or is this Orwell, Kafka, Murakami (Timothy Leary), that has hijacked your device and carried you into a surreal and convoluted parallel universe created by Phillip Dick?

The speakers blare out...The first blast of propaganda hints at Pak Jun Do's mother--a kidnapped opera singer, a *toy* of the Dear Leader. The father, it is assumed, is the Master of the orphanage. The story is told in 2 parts, the first section being about Jun Do and his upbringing --the dirty and horrific jobs he takes to survive. Here Johnson is at his best describing the tunnels and kidnappings, the rusting fishing boat and the voices that seem to come from nowhere through the ship's radio, the haul of Nike shoes fished up from the sea. The paranoia and oppression entrenched in the men is like the rust taking over the boat. Jun Do goes through several professions and levels of social standing, tunnel fighter, kidnapper, radio operator, then prisoner, hero, foreign dignitary, and eventually takes over an assumed identity, inheriting a wife, and finds love.

Johnson tells the story using several different methods; creative and clever, and at times even humorous, these many devices tell the horrors and atrocities almost like background music floating behind a scene: the propaganda speakers blare out the love the Dear Leader has for his people, while Jun Do travels through the country seeing his people eating grass or raising dogs for food; an interrogator thinks, "we ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels..in a few weeks he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective" --the prisoner, a professor, was accused of playing pop music from South Korea to his students. The writing methods and devices are like passages to another place on the timeline of the story, adding a new dimension to reader participation, but just as easily can be confusing-- making this a read that requires real effort, but very worthwhile.

If you have ever used the aid of nitrous oxide at the dentist's office, you will relate: I started listening to this novel at the dentist's office (I was scheduled for a 3 hour fun-block). A new book, a fully charged ipod, and the gas mask firmly in place. After about 1 hour, I got a little break. I lifted the nitrous mask from my face, looked at my ipod and thought, "WTH?! Maybe I shouldn't be listening to this under the influence." When I got home, lungs full of oxygen, brain cleared out, I started over. I listened a while then thought, "WTH!?" Once you catch on to the methods, the story becomes clear and easily navigated. Johnson's novel is a piece of inspired literary construction with steps and passages, tunnels, holes, voices from nowhere... with writing that is just as alarmingly beautiful and incongruent. Parts seemed even beyond surreal to me and were not a good fit, thus my 4* rating. But, for all I know, behind that wall of secrecy, this could be complete reality with just a surreal and convoluted leader?


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- Mel "Say something about yourself!"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 01-10-2012
  • Publisher: Random House Audio