I am happy to join the bandwagon of sites that are reviewing the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Published in 2012 and written by Adam Johnson, the novel tells the story of a North Korean orphan named Jun Do who experiences a lifetime full of events that are meant to highlight both the absurdity and the oppressiveness of the North Korean regime.
First, let me say that this novel was basically about the North Korean Forrest Gump. Jun Do seems to live a life that coincidentally lines up perfectly to allow the reader to see the worst aspects of life in North Korea. He’s in the military, on a fishing boat, going to Japan, going to America, meeting with Senators, in prison, and finally elevated high enough to rub elbows and converse with the late Kim Jong Il.
Accepting the remote possibility of a random orphan experiencing this amazing chain of events is a prerequisite for enjoying this book. Acceptance should be pretty easy since it is a creative choice by the author to show as many disparate experiences as possible in the DPRK. Shabnam seemed to have a problem with this at times, but I was on board from the beginning.
Many reviews and media coverage of this book mention how the story gives you an inside look at life in North Korea. This is only partly true. While I have no doubt that Johnson did a metric ton of research to put this story together, the probabilities needed to have the protagonist experience everything that happened in this book leads me to believe that the average citizen probably does not have run ins with every level of oppression, corruption, and graft that is on display here. Still, when I finished the novel I did feel a bit like a voyeur, so there was definitely a feeling of immersion.
The writing is solid but not spectacular. Johnson has a journalism background and I think it is on display here. The writing is what I would call workmanlike – it tells the story and gets the hell out of the way. While I was never wowed by any of the writing, I don’t recall any awkward sentences jarring me out of the experience either.
This book recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Make no mistake, I thought it was a good book, but not an excellent one. I think Johnson has written an entertaining book about the perfect subject at the perfect time. It paints North Korea in the colors that Americans expect and makes us feel good about ourselves while at the same time feeling righteous pity for the poor North Koreans who have to live under a crazy regime. It’s the perfect storm for a Pulitzer.
7/10 Cans of Poisonous Peaches