Title: Please look after mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Review: Their mother has disappeared from a train station in Seoul. Their parents were coming from the Korean countryside for a visit to their children in the city. The children put on a desperate search — they distribute flyers, seek out clues, turn to the police and to passers-by, but Mom is nowhere to be found. Kyung-sook Shin’s novel, Please Look after Mom, is the first of her books to be translated into English. Immensely popular in Shin’s home country of South Korea, the novel has received both acclaim and criticism in the U.S.
Most of Please Look after Mom is told in the second person. Part one addresses, and takes the perspective of, the eldest daughter, an unmarried writer. (One assumes here that she is also the narrator, addressing herself, and perhaps represents the author.) Part two is written in a more conventional third person, but with the viewpoint restricted to the perspective of the eldest son. Part three reverts to the second person, with the husband addressing himself. And part four continues in the second person, but here the narrator is clearly So-nyo herself, or perhaps her spirit, addressing a variety of characters: the younger daughter, an old friend, and her husband’s mistress, among others. Each part is reflecting a different character’s perspective, Shin has written at least half of the novel in the second person narrative — a style that lends itself well to each character’s self-reflective and at times, self-effacing inner dialogue.
The first part belongs to Chi-hon, the elder daughter and a well-known novelist, who reflects on the events since Mom’s disappearance. Her pain is visceral as she treads through the time periods, conversations, and memories of her mother. Deep in her ruminations is the guilt she feels over her recurring terseness and dismissal of Mom’s concern, of Mom’s ignorance and illiteracy. Shin has weaved together a quiet irony in Chi-hon’s relationship with her mother. Chi-hon has chosen a career as a novelist while her mother has never had the opportunity to become literate.
“You never stopped calling her Mom. Even now, when Mom’s missing. When you call out “Mom” you want to believe that she’s healthy. That Mom is strong. That Mom isn’t fazed by anything. That Mom is the person you want to call whenever you despair about something…”
The next part focuses on Hyong-chol, Mom’s elder son and also her favourite child. Hyong-chol’s account, though not written in the second person, is just as reflective and emotionally jarring as his sister’s. At the heart of his reflection on his relationship with his mother is the feeling that he ultimately let her down by not understanding that her dreams for him were perhaps her dreams for herself. While Hyong-chol becomes aware of this after Mom’s disappearance, we also learn that Mom held her own guilt towards Hyong-chol, which she attempted to vocalise, if only he was paying attention.
Similarly, their father realises his mistakes and the ways in which he took his wife for granted. His insensitivity and wrongdoing further highlight Mom’s incredible strength of character and the ways in which she remained emotionally isolated for most of her life.
In the final part of the novel, we hear from Mom herself, acutely providing more insight to her life. At 17 she devoted her life to her husband and eventually to her children; a story not uncommon in Eastern cultures. Mom’s reflections are perhaps the most evocative and soulful pieces of the novel. As the story unravels from each differing perspective, you learn the secrets and truths that define each character and the family as a whole. At the backdrop is the history of South Korea and intertwined are themes of war, loss of innocence, and heritage.
Some reviews by critics in the U.S. have referred to Please Look after Mom as a “soap opera,” “melodrama,” and a “guilt-laden morality tale.” Self-inflicted guilt on account of one’s mother is a raw and authentic part of Eastern cultural identity (this is so in a number of other cultures as well) where mothers of prior generations may have suffered silently in many respects while dedicating their life to their children. Their ordeals and sacrifices are far more than just melodrama. The guilt is necessary perhaps to remind us of our responsibilities — to hold us accountable.
In the Eastern world, as is demonstrated by the popularity of the novel in South Korea and the numerous other languages in which it is set to be translated, Shin’s story is not only credible and compelling, but also an opportunity to reflect, remember, and maybe even repent. In a poignant final scene of the novel’s Epilogue, Chi-hon surrenders herself before the Pietà in the heart of the Vatican. It is here that her belated order to look after Mom becomes a plea and a prayer that stirs and resounds long after you have put this novel down.
All of these describe some events in the present, as the characters search Seoul for So-nyo, following leads and rumours. There’s tension in this, in their relationships with one another, and in their attempts to return to normal life. Their responses are dominated by guilt and regret: the daughter looking back at a fraught relationship with her mother; the eldest son, both spoiled and placed under immense pressure as a child, still evaluating his own life in the parental mirror; and the husband, previously oblivious to the labours of his wife, going through a complete revolution in his understanding.
The main drive of Please Look after Mom, however, comes through revelations about So-nyo herself and the gradual uncovering of her life story. Hiding her illiteracy even as she pushed education on her children, working herself to the bone looking after the family, with even providing enough food a challenge in the early years, dealing with her own illness, and maintaining whole segments of her life in secret. Occasionally this seems a little too staged, with surprises about her life produced at regular intervals, and in a few places the plotting is contrived — there are two occasions, for example, where So-nyo’s husband secretly overhears her talking to her mother, rather too conveniently for the life-story-telling. The result is still a fine character study, however, though more descriptive than analytical.
If read as a parable the moral is hardly subtle — and would be even less so in a Confucian cultural context — but Shin is never didactic or saccharine. Despite the distractions of the second person narration and the structure, Please Look After Mom is an easy, engaging read. (It was a bestseller in Korea, but appears to have been a popular success in the United States largely because of an Oprah Winfrey endorsement.)
For outsiders, there’s a wealth of detail in Please Look After Mom about Korean culture, about food and festivals and social structures and more. The Parks’ family history also illustrates the huge social changes South Korea has undergone: from rural to urban and from poverty to affluence, most obviously, but also in Westernisation and the breakdown of traditional family life. This is a Korean novel, however, so all of this is entirely organic and not artificially or awkwardly added on to the underlying story.
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