Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin

As with Finn, Please Look After Mom has been reviewed ably elsewhere, and I’m not quite sure how to add to that. The short version: It combines generational changes with gender roles with the loss of a parent.

The “mom” mentioned in the title, Park So-nyo, has lived her entire life for her family, and her family has simply accepted this support without really thinking much about what this person as an individual is like, what she wants, what she needs. One day, she is separated from her husband at a Seoul subway station and disappears; he is simply unused to thinking of where she might be and leaves, not ensuring that she is, in fact, with him. The search is difficult, not least because she is not only illiterate but has been suffering what seem to be strokes, causing confusion. Her family–a husband and four children–set up a search for her, but hear only second hand rumors, arriving long after their mother/wife has vanished yet again from the scene. Readers piece So-nyo’s travels together in little better than a fragmentary manner: she walks for so long that the blue sandals she wears cut into her toes, and the cuts become suppurating wounds, she is hospitalized but the doctors cannot get a clear answer from her as to who she is or where she’s from. As the family searches fruitlessly, they realized what they have lost.

It’s a difficult book to read, structurally. There are four sections, each with a different narrator, none of whom are named explicitly although their identity can usually be deciphered. Much of the book is in second person narrative, as if the characters in question are being scolded or told about themselves by someone who knows them very well. It may also be difficult to read from an emotional standpoint too; I suspect that many readers will rush off to kiss their mothers before it’s too late. Hopefully, also get to know their parents! The fact that the family in this book doesn’t even have a recent picture of So-nyo is heartbreaking (at least to me); there are other details, such as So-nyo celebrating her birthday as an adjunct to that of her husband that build her up as a self-effacing person, who seems to have sunk back into a shadow. In this case, though, I think the cardboard cutout nature of this character is the point of the book: she is mother, she is wife, but the family has never thought of her as a person separate from themselves.

As with most books in languages the reader does not read, much depends on the translator; Chi-young Kim seems to have done a decent job, though. Part of the problem for me reading this book lies, I think in that the original was written not only in a language I can’t possibly read but about a culture I’m not familiar with. Much of the subtext about the relationship between the vanished woman and her family went whooshing straight over my head. So-nyo isn’t a complete doormat: she tosses her husband out when he tries to move his mistress into their marital home, but she does seem to be centered on family and home to a far greater extent than I’m used to. I don’t know if its my culture or my family that assumes women won’t be quite this self-effacing, but I kept wanting to shake the mother and say “Stand up for yourself! It won’t kill your kids to pack a lunch for themselves, or clean their own apartments after they leave home, now will it?” …which is, I think, the point of the book. There’s an element of generations clashing–the children, a product of the modern age, cannot see their mother as part of their world.


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