Shin Kyung-sook was born in a village where everyone’s surname was Shin. Her family was too poor to send her to school and so, at age 16, Shin moved to Seoul to work in an electronics factory. At age 22, she published her first work, the novella A Winter Fable. In 2012, Shin won the Asian Man Book Prize for her novel Please Look After Mom.
Mom is Park Song-nyo. She’s 69 years old and illiterate. She and her husband come to Seoul from their home in the countryside. At Seoul Station, they wait to transfer to a subway. He gets on and she doesn’t. Her children canvas the neighborhood. Her husband is distraught. Now that Mom’s missing, they suddenly see the gap she leaves behind. Please Look After Mom is a novel about regret.
The daughter regrets arguing with her mother on the telephone the day she disappears. The husband wishes he had broken himself of a lifelong habit of walking too fast for his wife to keep up. The son should have gone to the station to meet his aging parents, as he always has on every other visit to Seoul.
Each family member knows something about Mom that the others don’t. And Mom herself has a surprising side that none of her family suspects. These layers come unpeeled as each character recounts his or her version of who Mom really is.
Shin adds an additional layer of complexity by using the second person point of view for some of these characters. The opening paragraph is the reader’s first warning.
It’s been one week since Mom went missing. The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mom was last seen. […] Hyong-chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush, as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t.Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mom (Knopf 2011)
The you here is Chi-hon, the third of Mom’s children and the oldest daughter. Chi-hon is frantic to do something, but what? As the days go by without any news of the missing Mom, the children lash out at each other. Because the flip-side of regret, of course, is blame.
This is uncomfortable for the reader. Shin conflates reader and character. She writes that you, dear reader, are the one who should be blushing. You are to blame for this mess. Shin uses the 2nd person narrator to draw the reader deep into the story.
Past, Present, Future
Time loops through Please Look After Mom. Mom has memory lapses, chronic headaches, blackouts. She hides it all from her husband and children and they pretend not to see it until now that Mom is missing.
Her disappearance reminds Hyong-chol of the first time his mother visited him in Seoul, 30 odd years ago. It was wintertime and he needed something from home. She came alone on a night train. She wore blue plastic sandals that cut her feet.
Now, strangers call to say they’ve seen Mom. She’s dirty, confused, wearing a pair of blue plastic sandals that have cut deep into her foot. The wound is infected. She needs medical treatment. Hyong-chol recognizes the description but it’s Chi-hon who understands its significance.
She says that all the things that have happened are actually in the present, that old things are all mixed in with current things, and current things mingle with future things, and future things are combined with old things; it’s just that we can’t feel it.
A world of books
Chin-ho is a novelist. She travels the world for readings and book fairs. When she’s writing, Chi-hon won’t answer the door or her telephone. Her life couldn’t be more different than her mother’s.
Your mom’s house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round.
It’s easy to think that the author Chin-ho is the alter ego for the author Shin. But Chin-ho represents more than that. For an illiterate mother, there is no greater satisfaction than giving your child an education.
Chi-hon used to read in this shed. Getting bitten by the fleas. I knew that she crept in here with a book, in between the pigsty and the ash shed. When Hyong-chol asked where she was, I said I didn’t know. Because I liked seeing her read.
Mom doesn’t learn to write until her youngest child is old enough to go to school. She teaches herself how to write her youngest daughter’s name so that she can make her name tag. Mom hires a woman to read Chin-ho’s novels to her. Her dream is to be able to write a goodbye letter to each of her children before she passes.
But it hardly seems necessary. Little does Mom know how deeply her presence is engraved in the hearts of her family.
You’re paved in my heart like an old road. Like the pebbles in a pebble field, dirt in dirt, dust in dust, cobwebs in cobwebs.
1 November 2019 | Karen Kao