I knew very little about North Korea before I read this novel.
I paused for a long moment, when I finished the book.
Adam Johnson researched for a long period the country and the period. He was allowed to visit it once, under close scrutiny. Hence the realism of characters and depiction of events. In a recent history of the country when human life was worth nothing, Johnson puts is upfront.
The protagonist is such a complex character. At a first impression, it is incredible that a human being can go through so many things and with such an intensity. Hunger, bitter cold, deprivations, pain training, “re-birth” as a national hero and then – a regime’s general, love, torture and annihilation. His character is a tribute to all Koreans who suffered, struggled, loved and made sacrifices in times of extreme tyranny and harsh repression.
The genre is so nuanced and complex that I would not give it a name: is it a thriller, a love story, a political dystopia? Perhaps “trauma narrative”, as Johnson himself puts it is the closest to the dominant genre. And stay assured, it is no trauma-drama. It is poignant and respective of all the suffering of all concerned.
The novel is a compassion booster and a reminder that one never knows what a person has been through. Be kind.