Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Translator: Chi-Young Kim
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 237 Pages
Genre: Asian Literature, Korean Literature
A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea – a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation – this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
When Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom hit the stands, it instantly became a sensation in South Korea. However, it was through a book review I read that I came across this Korean novel. This favorable review piqued my curiosity so much that the moment I saw a copy of the book, I didn’t have second thoughts in purchasing it. I was brimming with anticipation at the prospect of reading a new book. I made the book part of my April 2018 Asian Literature month.
Please Look After Mom relates the story of an elderly Korean mother, Park So-Nyo, who went missing in the busy Seoul subway while on the way to meeting her children. Two of her four children and her husband then launched a search to find her. However, the more they search for her, the more they were drawn into the past. They were all suddenly wrapped up in a nostalgic trip down memory lane. And as they they search more in the past, the more questions sprung out. “Who is my mother/wife?” keeps playing at the back of their minds.
“You’re paved in my heart like an old road. Like the pebbles in a pebble field, dirt in dirt, dust in dust, cobwebs in cobwebs.” ~ Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom
Emotionally-charged and full of nostalgia, the novel is a perfect read for Mother’s Day (I was supposed to do the review for Mother’s Day but unfortunately some personal things hampered me from doing so.) It is a wonderful and moving book about mothers and motherhood. Its portrayal of the pains of motherhood is especially moving. Moreover, Kyung-Sook Shin did a very commendable job in awakening rarely mentioned emotions apropos motherhood.
Park So-Nyo’s family is the quintessential Asian family setup. The husband is at the helm while the wife is tasked to look after the children and the household. Sadly, everything the wife does are easily forgotten because it is simply viewed as part of her responsibility. Her kindest acts are seen as dispensation of her motherly/wifely duties. In spite of this, So-Nyo did her best to take care of everybody even though her husband and children don’t know her desires, her dreams and her pains.
“You only get to appreciate the smallest things when they are gone.” This age-old adage strongly resonated in the story. As the children and the husband searched for So-Nyo, they begun to appreciate all the things she did for them. On the other hand, regret filled them as well because as they probe deeper into their mother’s life, they begin to learn many things that they have never previously noticed – her sacrifices and her kindness to the ones that she loved.
These trips to the pasts in the form of flashbacks evoked a sense of introspection amongst the primary characters. It is also this introspection that makes the story soar because it aroused a different surge of emotions. Readers easily connected with the overall spirit of the story. Thankfully, Kyung-Sook did just enough to awaken emotions without it being too nauseating. There are certain parts that a sense of gloom hovered above the story but the nostalgia that resonated makes it easier for readers to relate to the story.
The story engaged the reader from the start until the end because of this emotional ride. However, Kyung-Sook’s writing is a little too standard it wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. She made a gamble in using second person voice. “Since your wife has gone missing, your heart feels as if it will explode every time you think about your fast gait.” Such passages filled the story but it worked on the opposite because it effected a sense of disconnection that affected the book’s overall flow.
It is probably due to this second person voice that the character development felt a little sketchy. Yes, mothers could easily relate to So-Nyo’s predicaments and her pains. However, there was still a sense of artifice in the story. Some of the interactions were contrived. So-Nyo’s husband was more of a caricature than an actual character. He is merely a passive audience who let the others take over.
“You realize that you habitually thought of Mom when something in your life was not going well, because when you thought of her it was as though something got back on track, and you felt re-energized.” ~ Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom
In spite of its flaws, Please Look After Mom effectively aroused an array of emotions. It is widely successful in making its readers reflect on their relationships, not with just their mothers but also with everyone surrounding them. The emotional high that the book brings is nostalgic without being overbearing. It is not as consistent or as tight as I would want it to be but it more than made up for its shortcomings with its emotionally-charged story. It could use a handful of editing but overall, it was still able to convey its message.
On another note, the book also made me understand some aspects of Korean culture, especially the one that I saw in Korean reality and variety shows. When newcomers join a show, one of the first things that the newcomers usually say is “please look after me” or “please look on me kindly.” Unfortunately, in the book, it was said only at the end.
On a more personal note, I was greatly moved by the story. It made me reflect on my relationship with my mother, especially now that both of her sons are out of her cradle. I remember my father telling me, “Please come home, your mom misses you.” I always mean to but my plans always get usurped by other things. But I know that my mother understands why. I am also sorry for all my misgivings as a son. Saranghae eomeoni. I love you mom.
Recommended for readers looking for emotionally charged stories, those who enjoy introspection and those who wants to reflect, and those who want to understand Korean culture.
Not recommended for readers who are overwhelmed by nostalgia, those who dislike books with inconsistent points of view and those who dislike books about regret.
About the Author
(Photo by The Korean Times)
Born on January 12, 1963 in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, South Korea, Kyung-Sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists.
She made her writing debut with the novella Winter’s Fable (1985). Her first novel, Deep Sorrow was published in 1994. Her other works include The Train Departs at Seven (1999), Violet (2001) and I’ll Be Right There (2010). For her works, she has been honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu.
She gained international recognition when her 2009 novel Please Loom After Mom was published in English, making it her first book to appear in English. The book also won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, making Kyung-Sook Shin the first Korean and the first woman recipient of the award.
Currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City, she lives in Seoul.