The Korean title of this indelible novel, Omma rul put’ak hae, contains a sense of commanding trust that is missing in its English translation: “I entrust Mommy [to you].” That trust is irreparably splintered when ‘Mom’ disappears after becoming separated from her rushing husband on a busy Seoul Station platform. In four distinct voices, the character of Mom – a rural farmwoman whose “hands could nurture any life”– is reassembled by her eldest daughter, whose books Mom couldn’t read; her eldest son, for whom she could never do enough; her husband, who never slowed down; and finally Mom herself as she wanders through memories both strange and familiar.
Shin’s breathtaking novel is an acute reminder of how easily a family can fracture, how little we truly know one another, and how desperate need can sometimes overshadow even the deepest love.
In a crowded Seoul subway station, a rural visitor boards a train. But his wife of fifty years becomes lost in the crowd; the train pulls away without her. He turns around at the next station, but by the time he returns to where he last saw her, she’s gone.
This disappearance is the driving force behind Kyung-sook Shin’s novel Please Look After Mom, a wrenching look into the complex web of family dynamics, the things that bring them together, and the things that tear them apart.
Mom’s vanishing devastates her five grown children and her husband. As the days turn into months and even the police give up searching for her, they find themselves fraught with guilt, consumed by memories of the woman they loved, yet mostly took for granted. These memories are woven together to create, in rich detail, the portrait of a life that may or not be over.
The story is told from four points of view: Chi-hon, the second eldest child and oldest daughter, Hyung-chol, the eldest son, Father, and Mom herself. We start with Chi-hon, a successful novelist. She recalls a hardworking woman, a country wife and mother who was never educated, who often embarrassed and infuriated Chi-hon with her ignorance and superstition. Hyung-chol suffers wracking guilt; as the adored oldest child, Mom both worshipped and pressured him. His dream of becoming the lawyer she wanted him to be, as well as his dream of raising her above her situation and giving her a comfortable life, were lost somewhere along the path his life has taken. Father finds himself lost, unable even to do the simple household tasks his wife always took care of. He too has plenty to berate himself for: selfishness, resentment, adultery, abandonment. As they all wonder how a grown women could have become so thoroughly lost, their recent memories bring up a common theme that points to their mother having severe health and mental problems that none of them wanted to see.
When Mom’s turn comes, we are given the answer to at least one question, though her children may never learn it. She confesses her worry for her younger daughter, a mother with three small children and the closest to Mom in her situation. She recalls her youth, her arranged marriage, all the terror and wonder of motherhood, and she reveals one or two secrets her family will likely never know.
The final chapter returns the story to Chi-hon, who finds herself facing a strange new world: a place where her mother doesn’t exist. There is no resolution to this story, as such. The characters simply fumble ahead, perhaps never knowing what happened to their wife and mother, and only now appreciating what she meant to all of them.
Please Look After Mom will be released in the United States in April 2011. Knopf, one of Random in the USA will publish this title this April with the first print run of 100,000 copies. This title has sold to 23 countries.
The Verdict: Definitely worth your time. This book will make you call your mom, just to hear her voice and make sure she’s still there.
about the author:
KYUNG-SOOK SHIN grew up in a remote village in South Korea, the fourth child and oldest daughter of six. Her parents were farmers who could not afford to send her to high school, so at sixteen she moved to Seoul, where her older brother lived. She worked in an electronics plant while attending night school, and published her first collection of stories in 1988, at age twenty-five. She is the author of twelve previous works of fiction, and has been honoured with the 1996 Manhae Literature Prize, the 1997 Dong-in Literature Prize and the 2001 Isang Literary Prize. Beginning in August, she will be spending a year in New York as a visiting professor at Columbia University.