Quite a while ago I read The Calligrapher's Daughter. It was terrific. At the time I was shocked to realize that novel was the first book I ever read that was set in Korea. That's odd for a lifetime of reading, don't you think? Finally going on two years later I have read my second novel set in Korea, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin. Two books in decades of reading? It makes me wonder where Publishers have been keeping Korea.
Please Look After Mom is an excellent, contemporary novel set in Seoul. In it a Mother goes missing at a subway station. The story of her disappearance is told in turns by her daughter, son, husband and the Mother, Park So-nyo, herself. From what I've read Please Look After Mom was a big bestseller in Korea and Shin has written several novels that have been both commercial successes and prize winners in her homeland. This is her first novel to be translated into English.
It happens at a busy subway stop. Father is aggressive, rushing, Mother lags behind for a moment and suddenly they are separated. The family is understandably upset. As hours turn into days and days turn into weeks everyone has plenty of time for anxious reflection. They try to reconcile the powerhouse, invincible Mother they knew with the old woman she has become and the vacancy she has left. They wonder at the lengths she has gone to, the sacrifice of self she has made to give them all as much as she could toward what they want. They are by turns: devastated, hopeful, resentful, thankful and finally desperate to find out what has happened.
As with any crisis, events lead family members to question their relationships, to examine the past with fresh eyes. Park is illiterate, a farmer's wife, a woman with seemingly no worldly experience. She has played the role of the traditional Korean housewife. Shin uses Park's husband and eldest son and daughter as the guides in exposing who this missing woman is, all that she has done and how she has been viewed and treated. Mother's physical disappearance is recent but her absence from their lives as the figure they knew has been coming on for years. The woman they love and need verses the elderly shell described in the missing posters is a powerfully disturbing for all of them.
It is impossible to read a novel like this and not put yourself emotionally into everything the family is experiencing in a very personal way. However Please Look After Mom is no old fashioned, florid, mother-love saga like the kind Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber used to write or something you see on the Hallmark channel. The four singular voices Shin created aren't manipulated by her for cheap sentiment. Shin uses quiet, precise writing to gain your empathy for her characters, the urgency of the search and show us the changes happening in Korea. The characters are on a journey that will teach them all they don't know and what they value. Shin shows us how a break can occur in any family, in any culture, no matter how strong.
P.S. The title? I don't know if the title is a literal translation of the Korean title or not. Please Look After Mom. It has an odd feel to it doesn't it? It's a sentence. The cover? It looks as if should have a 'movie tie in' banner across the bottom.