“Even though I’m a mother, I have so many dreams of my own, and I remember things from my childhood, from when I was a girl and a young woman, and I haven’t forgotten a thing. So why did we think of Mom as a mom from the very beginning?”
Some books help us pass time. Some other books possess the power to look through the time passed in our lives and call attention to things we have taken for granted. Korean novelist Shin Kyung-sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom (originally published in 2008 and translated to English by Kim Chi-Young in 2011), which won the Man Asian Literary Prize, clearly belongs to that later category of books. The novel is a haunting tear-jerker, which reminds us to appreciate and reciprocate the never-ceasing, unconditional love one receives from his/her mother. Although set in Seoul, South Korea, Shin Kyung-sook’s devastating tale deals with universal themes like motherhood, loss, tradition, loneliness, and familial roles.
A large part of this international best-selling novel is told in second-person narration which is initially off-putting, but gradually it achieves an eloquence that adds to the reading experience. Carefully divided into four chapters, Please Look After Mom opens with the mysterious disappearance of a 69-year-old woman named Park So-nyo in a crowded Seoul subway station. She’s accompanied by her husband both having arrived from the countryside to the big city where their four children are living. The first three chapters are narrated by the woman’s elder daughter (Chi-hon), elder son (Hyung-chol), and the husband respectively. While the family desperately searches for her, wandering around the streets and putting up ‘missing’ posters, the aforementioned family members reflect upon the sacrifices she has made for them although they never truly appreciated or acknowledged it.
The journey down the memory lane is littered with small details and events which after mom’s absence looms large and deepens each character’s guilt. The novel’s strength lies in the way it skilfully juxtaposes the specific Korean history (the Korean War, dictatorship, etc) and culture with the universal theme of ever-changing family dynamics. Park So-nyo grew up in the country in an era when war and poverty threatened to topple people’s lives. She’s illiterate yet a very hard-worker, and helped all her four children to study and lead a successful life in the city. The central question that haunts the characters’ mind, when they piece together the selfless nature of Park So-nyo, is why they only saw her as the ‘Mother’? Why didn’t they comprehend that she was once a child and a young woman with dreams and aspirations of her own? (“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom.”) She has meticulously co-ordinated each and every part of their lives, yet only when she has slipped out of their lives they come to value her existence.
It takes time to get accustomed to the different narrators and their own unique voice. Furthermore, the memories are interweaved in a manner that’s a bit meandering. Yet the emotions derived from the meandering thoughts -- such as despair, regret, shame, helplessness, etc -- strongly resonates with us because we are able to reflect on our own memories of our altruistic parents. Kyung-sook’s prose is very simple, lacking lyricism. However, the scenarios and the memories described here are so devastating to emotionally overwhelm us. Although the tone of the novel could be described as gloomy, the author finds great beauty in evoking the details of long-dormant memories. Despite an occasional passage of sentiment and melodrama, Please Look After Mom deftly examines the suffering and frustration of a self-sacrificing maternal figure (and this tale has originated from a society that’s quite similar to my own).