The unstoppable “Please Look After Mother”

Not so long ago people were complaining that the Korean literature available in English translation wasn’t reaching out to a modern audience. Yes, there was a fair amount available, the argument went, but much of it lamented Korea’s travails during the colonial period, or explored the han-laden traumas of national division. Not something of much appeal outside the small circle of Korea specialists, perhaps.

Kyung-sook Shin (photo credit: Lee Byungryul)
Kyung-sook Shin (photo credit: Lee Byungryul)

The first Korean novel which gave me an inkling that something different was available was Kim Young-ha’s I have the right to destroy myself, a quirky look at assisted suicide. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I could see that this pointed the way towards Korean literature that could reach out to an international audience. Then, equally as different was Jo Kyung-ran’s Tongue, a fresh, contorted novel involving gastronomy, passion and a horrible revenge. Korean purists will hate me for saying so, but I’m going to say it anyway: this was a novel which was fresh, different, kind of like … the novels of Murakami Haruki or Kirino Natsuo, or the films of Miike Takashi. Finally came the translation of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You, a spy novel with plenty of twists and turns, which was among LKL’s books of the year last year.

Despite their novelty and favourable reviews, the novels generally remained a minority interest. But it was interesting that all three novels shared the same translator: Kim Chi-young.

Now comes the juggernaut: Shing Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mother, and again the translator is Kim Chi-young.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Please Look After Mother is a phenomenal bestseller in Korea, and has reprinted over 100 times, with more than 1.5 million readers buying copies there.

Please Look After Mother is the story of So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice and compromise. In the past she suffered a stroke, leaving her vulnerable and often confused.

So-nyo’s story is told in four short chapters, from four different voices, beginning with that of the eldest daughter, who is in Beijing when her mother disappears. Her mother, travelling from the Korean countryside to the Seoul of her grown-up children, becomes separated from her husband when the doors close on a packed train… Now the family is arguing over how to find her; they have gone to the police, they have searched on foot, but to no avail. So they spread “missing person” flyers across the city, following leads to nowhere.

As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and all they have left unsaid. The final chapter, told from the mother’s point of view, is a surprise: who she is, we see, is quite different from what her daughter, son and husband thought.

Beautifully written – with vivid details of daily life in the Korean countryside – Please Look After Mother prompts the reader to reflect on the story of our own families.

Kyung-sook Shin is the author of 6 novels in addition to Please Look After Mother, which will be published in 19 countries, has sold 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone (pop c. 50 million). She is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, having won the Manhae Grand Prize for Literature, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Isang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. She lives in Seoul and in New York.

Now the “firsts”. It’s made it to number 21 on the New York Times bestseller list, only three weeks after being released. It’s the first Korean novel to be read on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime at the beginning of June. Shin herself will be appearing at the Hay Literary Festival on 28 May, and such is the buzz that the event is sold out. The book has had very good reviews in the States, and one high-profile negative review (on National Public Radio) created quite a storm – start your reading on the Subject Object Verb K-lit blog here.

Interestingly, the book has been slightly tailored for the UK market: a slightly different title (very sensible) and a much more appealing cover:

Please look after Mom (the US edition)Please look after Mother (the UK edition)

I know which edition I’d buy

I look forward to seeing how the sales figures go in the UK. It’s already had a decent review in the FT.

It’s published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 28 April 2011 price £12.99.

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3 thoughts on “The unstoppable “Please Look After Mother”

  1. I didn’t realize that the pub date was later this month. I was at Waterstone’s-Picadilly Circus and saw Please Look After Mother on an endcap, face out and readily for sale! Beautiful cover and I do prefer the UK title. It’s been phenomenal watching the success of this title. I read about it first in _List: Books from Korea and see it pick up all over.

  2. I never understand the correlation (or lack of it) between official publication dates and the date a book is available on Amazon or in the shops! The official press release from W&N / Orion Books says 28 April.

  3. Yes, I’ve just finished ‘Please Look After Mother’. I like the book because it takes interest in a housewife and mother: someone who tends to get overlooked in the everyday hurly-burly of life. In this novel everyone in the family got on with their own lives and tended to take mother/wife for granted. Written in the first person, it looks at the family & its lives, from her perspective. I learnt a lot about the dynamics of Korean family life. In some ways itis similar to the dynamics of family life in a lot of countries.

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