Orphan Master's Son is set in North Korea, and it doesn't really work without North Korea - although it's not exactly about
the place. What it's about is a sort of dark play on [b:The Count of Monte Cristo,|7126|The Count of Monte Cristo|Alexandre Dumas|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309203605s/7126.jpg|391568] and if you think Count of Monte Cristo set in North Korea with the addition of loads of torture sounds balls out, you should read this book because it's terrific, and if you don't think that sounds balls out, really? What's wrong with you?
It is super dark, though. Way dark. If you're my girlfriend, and don't really enjoy being bummed right out, you shouldn't read this.
I mentioned North Korea, and here are three scenarios:
1) Orphan Master's Son was written by a North Korean
2) It was written by an American of Korean descent
3) It was written by some white guy from Stanford
Do those scenarios make y'all feel differently about this book? Does authenticity affect your enjoyment of a book? Does it matter (and this is probably a separate question) if the author has all of his facts right about what life is exactly like in North Korea?
Scenario 3 is correct, and Adam Johnson researched N. Korea with the help of Stanford's Korean Studies Librarian (whatever that is) and somehow even visited.
I wrestled with this quite a bit at first and I'm not sure why. Isn't it about whether it's a good book? But there's this...sortof an uncanny valley thing that I worry about, where a book isn't obviously fantasy, but I don't trust it to be totally accurate either; it looks like the truth but might not be the truth. If someone wrote a book set in my hometown of Boston and substantially mischaracterized it, I would be irritated.
And this is no Boston, either, and that matters. Boston isn't all that exotic. I think it's fair to say that with a mysterious place like North Korea, the average person will take Orphan Master's Son as a reliable depiction of life there, so Warren's got some weight on his shoulders to make sure he's being accurate.
FWIW I've done my best to research the accuracy of the book (in half an hour). Here's an NPR interview
that talks a bit about it. Forced abortions appear to be for real - no primary source, but many mentions. Wikipedia claims that the "crows" are real with a quote that's wholly unsourced. (Friggin' Wikipedia.) I can't find any mention of the Pubyok (a torture team with idiosyncratic habits), but that's a case where I understood while reading that that felt like it might be literary imagination at work.
My impression is that Warren was super careful and that he did a good job presenting the truth.
Would've loved to have an end note describing his research and what he was trying to be accurate about, as opposed to consciously using artistic license on.
Books like this walk a line: they're primarily novels, but they must accept the function of reportage as well, because they'll be taken that way like it or not. There's a responsibility there. I think Warren was aware of this and that he nailed it. And I'm quite sure he wrote a kick-ass book.