Book review: Shin Kyung-sook — Please look after Mother

Please look after MotherKyung-sook Shin: Please look after Mother
Originally published in Korean as 엄마를 부탁해, 2008
Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2011, 272pp
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Can we ever really appreciate who we have in our lives until they are gone? Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after Mother looks through the eyes of a family united in trying to find their sixty nine year old mother who had been lost after failing to follow her husband onto a crowded subway train in Seoul.

The mother So-nyo Park, whilst not present during most of the book, is vividly represented chapter by chapter through the memories and thoughts of each of her children and her husband. So-nyo’s unending devotion to her children has resulted in a life of hardship and self sacrifice, unrecognised until her disappearance.

Her children, like many children seem to have only ever considered her as ‘Mother’, and have failed to recognise how she was once child, a young woman and someone with dreams and aspirations long forgotten. Her husband, bored with a life where everything was organised and unexciting, becomes lost and childlike without the woman who gave his life structure.

In order to find So-nyo, the family attempt to retrace the steps she may have taken since her disappearance. In doing so, the family begin to piece together the selfless heart of a woman they hadn’t fully appreciated, a mother single minded in her need to care for her family and give all of herself to their wellbeing. She took meat from her own bowl and placed it into that of her eldest son. After being betrayed by her husband, she still forced her young son to eat food prepared by his father’s mistress in order that he does not go hungry. It is only towards the end of the book where a true insight into So-nyo is revealed in her own words, and the family understand what they may have lost.

Set in modern day South Korea, and richly peppered with references to its traditions and food, some of themes and issues ring true in many modern families, but Shin paints a picture of an existing cultural gap between two generations of this complex country. The first who have seen the divide of their country, many having tirelessly worked the land and put the needs of their family before themselves. In contrast the next generation run to jobs in the city and eat instant noodles for lunch prioritising their own ambitions and ego.

The second person narrative used for several of the characters make much of the reading at times uncomfortable and accusatory in its tone, but works well in creating a sense of personal guilt around So-nyo’s disappearance.

‘Please Look After Mother’ is a thought provoking, tender and heart wrenching study of family, especially the role of a mother, so often overlooked despite being a family’s strength and heart.

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8 thoughts on “Book review: Shin Kyung-sook — Please look after Mother

  1. Before I read this book I (as many people I’m sure) didn’t know much about Korea, Southern or Northern. I have to admit, I was a little nervous if I will like it…but in the end, I ended loving it! Such a captivating story and likeable character were never in my head while reading. It reminded me of my another recent favourite book – Trouble In The Camera Club. If you’d like, you can check the review.

    Thanks for the article and keep up the good work!

    Hannah

  2. I’ve just finished Please Look After Mother. I like the book because it takes interest in a housewife and mother: as the review above says, mother is someone who tends to get overlooked in the everyday hurly-burly of life. In the novel everyone in the family got on with their own lives and as the review says, tended to take mother/wife for granted. I agree with the review above that it shows a generational shift as well, with the younger generations much more individualistic and aspirational. 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. I thought that the narrative technique – written in the first person – is a very effective way of telling mother’s story.

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