Thursday, June 09, 2011

Please Look After Mom

Please Look After Mom / Kyung-Sook Shin; translated by Chi-Young Kim.
Toronto: Random House, c2011.
237 p.

This is a Korean best-seller that has just been released in English. It's the tale of a Korean family whose mother goes missing after she is inadvertently left behind on the subway platform at a busy station in Seoul.

The book is broken up into four sections: the first, told in the voice of the eldest daughter; the second, the eldest son; third, the husband; and finally, in the mother's own voice. At first we learn what the situation is, then we start to learn more about the family and their shared history through flashbacks and guilty remembrances. The language is fairly simple, and the narrative is plain and straightforward -- but the simplicity is deceiving as the story has layers and layers, and deep emotional content. I found myself crying in parts, especially near the end.

It's a unique tale and one that covers this family's life, from the parents' childhoods right up to the current moment when the children are middle-aged, some with children of their own. It held a certain fascination for me in the way that it described, in a rather off-hand manner, all the domestic details of their lives. The mother spends her life, from her early marriage on, caring for the house, feeding everyone, cleaning, planting, harvesting, pushing her children to study and so on. She comments on how hard it was, what appetites her children had, but accepts it as simply the way life is. She is portrayed as a strong woman who can simply look at a seed in order for it to grow, a caring mother who will travel all the way in to Seoul to bring her young adult sons a meal and travel all the way home to the country the same day so that she won't inconvenience them with sleeping arrangements. She is a character who cannot read, whose intellectual growth has been limited by life, but who also values education highly and pushes her children to succeed. I was saddened by her inability to recognize her own accomplishments as success as well.

The story gives us a vision of the traditional countryside -- the food, the houses, the family arrangements -- and contrasts that with the modern Seoul lifestyle of the adult children, especially the eldest daughter who is a writer and flies around the world to various locales quite regularly.

Saying that this is a story told about a disappearance is true; but it is also much more. It's about the disappearance of a whole way of life as the children leave their small town. It also questions whether their mother hadn't already lost herself years before. I was impressed by this book, both by the multifaceted family the author has created and by the seemingly effortless way she includes details of Korean life. Seeing the story from different perspectives also allows us to share the different ways that women and men were and are treated, and the expectations they hold -- with the resultant levels of guilt or feelings of responsibility for what has occurred.

While it may use motifs of motherhood and penitential confessions, even going so far as to have the eldest daughter gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary when in Rome and thinking of her own mother, I really didn't find that it was trying to canonize the very idea of "motherhood". Personally I shy away from things that idealize and romanticize the fact of being a mother, yet I didn't find this at all smarmy. After all, we've all felt at times as if we've ignored or discounted our own mother's real life -- even in some small way -- and then felt guilty about it, haven't we?

It was poignant without using a lazy appeal to the emotions, it was deeply sympathetic even to the unlikeable-at-first-glance characters, and it was an original take on a family dealing with loss. Recommended.


  1. I hope I get the chance to read this one. It sounds great.

  2. Diane - I loved it because it felt like something new to me. I thought it was quite well done and I really felt for that mother!

  3. I requested this from the library ever since I read the (very dismissive) NPR review of the book. Based on your review and others, it actually sounds very promising--I hope the queue moves fast!

  4. Aargh--I meant *when*, not *ever since*.

  5. Niranjana - I read that NPR review: didn't agree with her take on it at all. I thought this was well-written (though some problems wth the translation, I will admit) and a deeply moving book.

  6. Thanks for the recommendation & your write up of this book. I've lived with my mother for over 40 years & appreciate her more & more each day. I've just put a library hold on it & hope my wait won't be too long.

  7. Jenny - glad to hear it! I hope you will get a copy soon and that you will find it a good read. Certainly it makes us think about how much we appreciate our mothers -- and show them, too :)


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