Wow. Where to start. This is certainly one of the best contemporary novels I've read in at least a decade. It's like nothing I've read before, or a unique amalgamation of genres I haven't seen combined. It begins very much in the vein of the Odyssey, except the protagonist, Jun Do, can't be said to literally be journeying home. Much of this book is about identity and storytelling. In that way, Jun Do (read: John Doe) is trying to get home, if home is one's sense of self and ability to determine one's fate. This book is also a love story and an adventure. All these things exist in the specific milieu of contemporary North Korea, the description of which leads us to wonder how one can have an identity separate from the state or create true intimacy with another person.
I had no idea how accurate or inaccurate Johnson's picture of North Korea might be as I read, but the novel was followed by a Q & A that revealed both his in-depth research and travels to North Korea. It also makes clear what is invented by the author and why, but clearly his portrait is not far from the truth. That's devastating.
There are changes in point-of-view in the second half (these pov's consist of Jun Do's, one of his torturer's, and the voice of the state); at first I balked, sad to seemingly lose Jun Do's voice. But the book just keeps flowering, and the structure increases tension and shows us what we can't see just from Jun Do's first person perspective. I was intrigued, charmed, saddened, and/or angered by all the characters and admire the way characters from earlier in the book are not forgotten. Everyone feels like a fully realized person.
Only a fraction of the way into the novel I wondered where else this book would take me; already Jun Do had been through much (mostly awful, though the book is not depressing and possesses humor and offers hope). You can't anticipate all that will happen; it's surprising and humane, and this is a story I'm guessing I won't forget.