PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by Kyung-sook Shin

Book Quote:

“How did your mother happen to go missing?”

That is the most awkward—and frequent—question people have asked since Mom went missing. It’s always asked with a mixture of curiosity and judgment.

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtuman  (APR 15, 2011)

Those who have traveled in Southeast Asia – and Korea in particular — will know right away that the number 4 (pinyin sì) is considered unlucky because it sounds like “death” (pinyin s?). Why, then, did Korean author Kyung-sook Shin carefully craft a novel from four different viewpoints?

The answer is that the members of this family are unlucky, or at the very least, careless.  Through years as a family, none of them ever really knew Mom or understood the sources of her strength.  And now she has disappeared in a crowded Seoul subway station, where she and her husband of 50 years were about to board a train. Her disappearance devastates those who are left behind.

The story is told from four alternating points of view:  Chi-hon, the oldest daughter and a successful novelist, Hyung-chol, the oldest son who is wracked with guilt for not living up to his potential, her husband who inevitably disappointed Mom through his selfishness and adultery, and last of all, Mom.   Little by little, a fuller image of Mom emerges, although we, the readers, never really get to know all the facets of Mom either.

Chi-hon reflects, “Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers…You realized you’d become a stranger as you watched Mom try to conceal her messy everyday life.”  As Chi-hon strives to sort out who her Mom really was, she realizes that, “…because of one thing or another you would push calling her to the end of your list.”  Mom had become superfluous in her busy life, a solid presence who was always a little bit of an enigma.

Hyung-chol was the favored son who was both idolized and pressured.  In the end though, he could not live up to Mom’s aspirations and dreams for him.  “Mom’s disappearance was triggering events in his memory moments, like the maple-leaf doors, he thought he’d forgotten about.”

The two adult children – and their father – realize, too late, that Mom was an integral part of their existence.  Father thinks, “When she planted seedlings of eggplant, purple eggplants hung everywhere throughout the summer and into the fall.  Anything she touched grew in bounty.”  Still, he selfishly ignores her intense headaches and the heartbreaks that Mom is forced to undergo alone.

When we get to Mom’s story,  we learn some of the background – her arranged marriage, for instance, and a few of the secrets she keeps.  But it’s left to Chi-hon to recognize the truth in a letter from her younger sister, “Do you remember asking me a little while ago to tell you something I knew about Mom?  All I knew was that Mom’s missing.  It’s the same now.  I especially don’t know where her strength came from. Think about it.  Mom did things that one person couldn’t do by herself.  I think that’s why she became emptier and emptier.”

Please Look After Mom is a novel that’s distinctly Korean –ancestral-rite tables, the Full Moon Harvest, plum juice and steamed skate – but is also very universal.  Every view is explored – Chi-hon and Father’s stories are in second person, Hyung-chol’s is in third person and Mom’s is in first person.  And, while the second person tense can become a little cumbersome, the writing is still direct, moving, and graceful.

It’s worth noting that Kyung-sook Shin is already a prominent novelist in Korea; the book sold nearly one and a half million copies in South Korea.  Translated expertly by Chi-Young Kim,  the book is certain to make readers appreciate the hardworking, uncomplaining women who go by the simple endearment “Mom.” (Translated by Chi-young Kim.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 251 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (April 5, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Kyung-sook Shin
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More “missing” people stories:

Partial Bibliography (translated works only):

April 15, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Family Matters, Korea, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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