Please Look After Mom

Shin Kyung-Sook

translated from the Korean by Kim Chi-Yung
Knopf 2011
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
When 69 year-old Park So-nyo is lost in the crowd at the Seoul Station subway and can't be found, that impels her children and husband to an increasingly desperate search around the city — and a reevaluation of their relationships with her. This is the setting for Please Look After Mom, a four-part, multi-perspective novel.

Most of Please Look After Mom is told in the second person. Part one addresses, and takes the perspective of, the eldest daughter, an unmarried writer. (One assumes here that she is also the narrator, addressing herself, and perhaps represents the author.) Part two is written in a more conventional third person, but with the viewpoint restricted to the perspective of the eldest son. Part three reverts to the second person, with the husband addressing himself. And part four continues in the second person, but here the narrator is clearly So-nyo herself, or perhaps her spirit, addressing a variety of characters: the younger daughter, an old friend, and her husband's mistress, among others.

All of these describe some events in the present, as the characters search Seoul for So-nyo, following leads and rumours. There's tension in this, in their relationships with one another, and in their attempts to return to normal life. Their responses are dominated by guilt and regret: the daughter looking back at a fraught relationship with her mother; the eldest son, both spoiled and placed under immense pressure as a child, still evaluating his own life in the parental mirror; and the husband, previously oblivious to the labours of his wife, going through a complete revolution in his understanding.

The main drive of Please Look After Mom, however, comes through revelations about So-nyo herself and the gradual uncovering of her life story. Hiding her illiteracy even as she pushed education on her children, working herself to the bone looking after the family, with even providing enough food a challenge in the early years, dealing with her own illness, and maintaining whole segments of her life in secret. Occasionally this seems a little too staged, with surprises about her life produced at regular intervals, and in a few places the plotting is contrived — there are two occasions, for example, where So-nyo's husband secretly overhears her talking to her mother, rather too conveniently for the life-story-telling. The result is still a fine character study, however, though more descriptive than analytical.

If read as a parable the moral is hardly subtle — and would be even less so in a Confucian cultural context — but Shin is never didactic or saccharine. Despite the distractions of the second person narration and the structure, Please Look After Mom is an easy, engaging read. (It was a bestseller in Korea, but appears to have been a popular success in the United States largely because of an Oprah Winfrey endorsement.)

For outsiders, there's a wealth of detail in Please Look After Mom about Korean culture, about food and festivals and social structures and more. The Parks' family history also illustrates the huge social changes South Korea has undergone: from rural to urban and from poverty to affluence, most obviously, but also in Westernisation and the breakdown of traditional family life. This is a Korean novel, however, so all of this is entirely organic and not artificially or awkwardly added on to the underlying story.

February 2012

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%T Please Look After Mom
%A Shin Kyung-Sook
%M Korean
%F Kim Chi-Yung
%I Knopf
%D 2011 [2009]
%O hardcover
%G ISBN-13 9780307593917
%P 256pp