Please Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin (Knopf Canada 2011)
I am doing a phone interview with Kyung-Sook Shin just a few days after this review is completed. There is so much to look forward to discussing, albeit with the help of an interpreter. Principally I am curious as to whether this beautiful story of a South Korean family who quite literally lose their mother is mostly a triumph of experience or research. I truly try to be careful with the use of superlatives, but having thought about Please Look After Mom for two days I know that I am on safe ground with the following statement:
I have never, ever read a novel that felt more like a memoir.
I literally kept turning back to the cover to check. Yes, there are the words. This is a novel. Let me tell you a bit about the story.
Park So-nyo, age 67 travels to Seoul with her husband from their village in order to co-celebrate their birthdays with their children. The husband has a long-standing habit of walking several steps ahead of his wife and when he enters the subway, the doors close and Park So-nyo is left behind on the platform. We learn later that she has suffered a stroke some years before and also has crushing headaches. Although the term is not used in the book, it seems that the combined effect has caused the beginning stages of dementia. Mom is unable to find her way to her children's residences, to home, to police, to hospital, to safety. She is lost.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear, because reading the above may lead you to think that Please Look After Mom is some kind of police procedural thriller piece. It's not that. It's not that at all. The entire police involvement is summarized up in two anonymous paragraphs. While the external search for Mom carries the plot and suspense elements that readers do rather insist on; the real search, the one that will stay with you quite possibly for a lifetime, is the internal search.
Who is Mom? The narrative voices - there are four and 'four' is the Korean number of death - each ask themselves this. Adult children and the Father each journey into their individual memories of this self-sacrificing, hard-working simple woman from the mountainous countryside who manages to raise a family of educated professionals.
You will become tempted to examine your own memories of your own Mom or wife assuming she is alive. Or, if you are a Mom you may well want to start going through your own experience as it relates to each member of your family. Either way, you will find that it hurts, so do be careful.
Cliches become cliches in the first place because they are true. (And that in itself may be a cliche. Welcome to the hall of mirrors.) I suspect that this one is as old as Adam turning to Eve while they trudged out of Eden and saying, 'You don't know what you had until you lose it.' I know that I am going to dreadfully under-sell this in a brief review description, but as Mom's children think back on the sacrifices she made for them - the little things, like sleeping against a cold and drafty wall so her child could have the warmer part of the room; the big things, like taking her first ever trip in to Seoul so she could give her adored eldest son his high school transcript in order for him to further his education - you can't read all this without wanting to give your own Mom a hug and a kiss and a thank you.
The other attraction of Please Look After Mom is its portrayal of Korean life. I confess to ignorance on the topic. What I know of Korea is largely the by-product of M*A*S*H and Hawkeye Pierce. As Kyung-Sook Shin's novel has sold over one million copies (!) in its original Korean language and been turned into a hit play, I'll take that as evidence of the work's veracity. I truly, truly loved the descriptions of teh Korean festivals and how they are very much based around honouring the family unit. In the West, we pick up a greeting card (maybe); in Korea, there is a celebration of food and togetherness and shared happiness. Equally, and near the end, there is a scene involving Michelangelo's Pieta that ... if it doesn't make your heart ache and your eyes tear, you have no right to either.
Please Look After Mom is written simply and clearly. I have no ability to judge the translation, but the story and style rings so true that I doubt if the author has any quibbles with the translator's work. If I might make one suggestion, it would be to buy two copies. One for you and one to give to your Mom. The gift copy will say, "I understand."
A beautiful book. Be seeing you.