Please Look After Mother  – ★★★★
“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” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 27].
It is time for me to press on with the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge (YARC), and I am continuing with this challenge by reviewing a book by another South Korean author. In 2008, Kyung–sook Shin wrote a book Please Look After Mother, which has now sold more than two million copies and gained numerous prizes. Incidentally, the novel was translated in 2011 by Chi-young Kim, a female literary translator who also translated Young-Ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. In this book, grown-up children of a family in South Korea are missing their mother. She disappeared at the Seoul Station while trying to catch an underground train with Father. Mother in this family has always been that unnoticeable centre of love and care to be relied upon at any time, and the book then asks – what if one day this stable and unnoticeable foundation crumbles? Upon the disappearance of Mother in the story, each of the children, as well as Father, are forced to rethink their previous image of Mother, recalling memories of the person they realise they hardly new and should have cherished more. Telling the story from different character perspectives, this book by Kyung-sook Shin is a little gem – insightful, bitter-sweet, moving and, finally, quietly heartbreaking.
The book starts on a powerful note when the first sentence is “it’s been one week since Mother went missing” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 1]. After the news of their mother’s disappearance, the children start to panic and actively search for their mother. They also start to reflect on their past relationship with their mother and how distant they have grown from her over the years. Guilt-ridden, the grown-up children has renewed their interest in their hard-working, self-sacrificing mother, but is it already too late? The image of their mother has always been of a dependable, supportive and strong person whose love is omnipresent and unquestionable (like air in one’s lungs), but we also read that Mother had vulnerabilities which often got unnoticed by family members. After all, it is Mother who has always been there to help and care for them and not other way around. The characters’ perceptions regarding their mother start to shift in the story, and they all realise that it took something so drastic as their mother’s disappearance for them to experience this wake -up call. There is a sentence: “You had never thought of Mother as separate from the kitchen. Mother was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mother. You never wondered, did Mother like being in the kitchen?” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 58]. This is an important question, but, somehow, the children never previously gave a thought to it. The message is that one should never take anything or anyone for granted, and as the author explained: “I wanted to show how mothers whom we rely on to protect us may also be fragile beings in need of care” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 271].
The notable feature of the book is that it uses different perspectives to tell the story. This technique not only gives us a broader overview of the situation of Mother disappearing, but also makes the narrative more intimate. The first chapter is written from the perspective of a daughter, and the author uses a pronoun “you” to describe life events. This way to tell the story becomes very effective because the reader can immediately put himself or herself in the shoes of the daughter of the family who is a book writer and whose relationship with Mother has always been taken for granted. The search for the mother continues in the second chapter, which is written from the perspective of the eldest son – Hyong-chol. He became a successful man in his chosen career and is now over fifty years of age. Now that his mother is gone, Hyong-chol recalls the promises he once made to his mother, promises which have been forgotten. Because Mother is simply missing, and not dead, there is an element of indeterminacy to the story and the reader can wonder if, perhaps, the children still have an opportunity to make up to their mother. The third chapter is told from the point of view of Father, mother’s husband. It is he who “lost” mother at the Seoul station when the duo was trying to catch a train amidst crowds of people. The husband is presented as a rather insensitive man who sometimes made Mother suffer, and it is he who finds out the most surprising things about Mother. From the perspective of Father, there is a line: “when you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something or to blame her or ignore her” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 153]. And yet another chapter is written from the perspective of Mother herself – this is the first time that the narrative uses the pronoun “I”.
Please Look After Mother is also something much more than the case of a lost mother. Its insightful observations are interesting and prompt the reader to think more deeply about the nature of familial relationships. The book includes such statements as “either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 17] and “do you think that things happening now are linked to things from the past and things in the future, it’s just that we can’t feel them”? [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 216]. The book further makes observations on the nature of memory and the passage of time. This is also what makes the novel melancholic and relatable: “since you heard about Mother’s disappearance, you haven’t been able to focus on a single thought, besieged by long-forgotten memories unexpectedly popping up” [Kyung–sook Shin, 2008/11: 7]. As time moves forward and there is a growing societal modernisation and industrialisation, past traditions, including those that say “always show love and respect for your elders”, become less relevant and slowly unobserved. In that way, the novel also explores the generation gap, and the only downside is that the book may be slightly repetitive, including in its message.
Please Look After Mother’s unusual style and refreshing prose are appealing, and the novel is rather thought-provoking because it provides a curious insight into the trials of motherhood, carrying an important message. There is a feeling that the book deserves wider acknowledgement and consideration because it is a very warm and affectionate account of unsung heroes who are prepared to make sacrifices on a daily basis.