How much do children know about the woman who brought them into the world?
In Please Look After Mom, the children of one elderly Korean woman are forced to re-examine their relationship with their mother when she goes missing in a crowded metro station. In the process they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.
Park So-nyo and her husband are en-route from their home in the countryside to visit their children in Seoul. So-nyo is not quick enough to board the train before the doors close, leaving her stranded on the platform .
Her children immediately institute a search, publishing appeals in local newspapers and handing out leaflets on the streets. But while there are sightings of a disorientated figure with bloodied feat encased in blue plastic sandals, all the trails lead to dead ends. Recriminations ensue amongst her two daughters and two sons.
Each of them is given a voice in Shin Kyung-sook’s best selling novel.
Her first born son, and favourite children, Hyong-chol realises he has taken his mother’s love for granted and never made her feel welcome when she visited him in his city home bearing gifts of kimchi that she’d taken hours to prepare.
Her eldest daughter realises that she has ignored her mother’s needs and failed to act on the signs of her failing health. She remembers how her mother’s “dark eyes which used to be as brilliant and round as the eyes of a cow that is about to give birth” had grown dim with pain as she began suffering blindingly painful headaches. Instead of showing gratitude to the woman who had sold her only ring to pay for education, she had made perfunctory calls home.
These children – and her unfaithful husband – come to see this woman in a new light. They learn that she was illiterate but had striven for decades to hide this from her family. They learn that she had been secretly working at an orphanage in her spare time. They learn that she was suffering from cancer and was in constant pain.
The novel treads familiar ground in many ways particularly in representing the figure of the mother as the eternal nurturing nucleus of the family.
You realize that you habitually thought of Mom when something in your life was not going well, because when you thought of her, it was as though something got back on track and you felt re-energized.
Much of the popularity of this book (it won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize) stems from its ability to go further than rendering the universal story of family love and to tap into the anxieties felt in many societies like Korea about the way their old values, including the bonds of the family, are unravelling under the influence of economic development. Towards the end of the book, Shin Kyung-sook’s un-named narrator comments on the demise of the ancestral rites that used to hold families together.
When people used to hold ancestral rites in time-share vacation condos, they worried about whether ancestral spirits would be able to find them but now people just hop on planes.
There is a sense that what Shin Kyung-sook has done is to turn the disappearance of one woman into a metaphor for the disappearance of the old values of her country. It begins to take on the tone of a wake up call – a warning that the essential qualities of Korea are, like those of So-nyo – are threatened with extinction.
Please Look After Mom was published in Shin Kyung-sook’s native South Korea in 2009. Since then it has sold upwards of two million copies worldwide, its popularity boosted significantly when it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey to be one of her ‘books to watch’.
It was given to me as a gift by a work colleague who discovered I was looking for novels by Asian writers that would help me understand something of the cultures of this part of the world. I was afraid it would turn out to be little more than a highly sentimental story. I’m so glad I was proved wrong.