I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career. The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it. The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.
The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said. Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’
Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived a life of sacrifice’. She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’. She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children. At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close. The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her. Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’
The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’. Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search. Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up. You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days. You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’
The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable. Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.
Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’. This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration. Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman. The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality. Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.
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