Kyung-Sook Shin, Please look after mom (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

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Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Am I right in thinking that mothers are more often the subject of novels and memoirs than fathers? Or, is it just that I’m a woman and am subconsciously (or even consciously, if I’m honest) drawn to the topic? Of course, with the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize reviewing project I didn’t really have a choice. Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom (or, mother in the British edition) has now been shortlisted for the prize. So, here I am again, reading about a mother!

And I liked it – for a number of reasons. But, before I explain that, a quick overview of the plot. The book commences with the line “It’s been one week since Mom went missing”. We learn pretty quickly that the mother and father had been in Seoul to visit some of their children and had become separated when trying to board the subway together, with the mother being left behind. The rest of the book chronicles the family’s search for the mother and, as they search, their reflections on her life and their relationship with her.

So, what did I find fascinating? Firstly, of course, is the fact that it is set in South Korea. I haven’t been there, and I don’t think I’ve read any Korean literature before, so I was predisposed to be interested before I started it. I wasn’t disappointed. The novel is contemporary but spans a few decades, decades in which many of the current parental generation were still living fairly traditional rural lives while their children were being educated and moving to the city to chase “bigger” dreams. Through flashback reflections of the various characters we learn about this time of transition, and the challenges both generations faced in coping with the change. We learn of the mother’s determination that her children be educated, the lengths she went to to obtain the money to pay for this education, and her disappointment when one daughter trained to be a pharmacist but then married and had three children in pretty quick succession. It’s a story that’s been repeated around the world over the last century or two, and the usual universals are there – the economic challenges and all those big and little conflicts that attend social change – but each situation has its particularity. In this book it’s in how this specific family functions – the mother’s determination springing from her own lack of education, the self-centred father’s unreliability resulting in increased poverty for the family, the sibling relationships characterised by a mix of mutual responsibility, love and exasperation.

The next thing of interest is the form. Readers here know I like books which play around with form and voice, and this is one of those books. The story is told in five parts, using four points of view and three different voices. Got that? To make it easy, I’ll list how it goes:

  • “Nobody knows”, told by the elder daughter (but second eldest child), Chi-hon, in second person
  • “I’m sorry, Hyong-chol”, told by the eldest child, son Hyong-chol, in third person
  • “I’m home”, told by the father/husband, in second person
  • “Another woman”, told by the mother, Park So-nyo, in first person
  • “Epilogue: Rosewood rosary”, told by Chi-hon (again), in second person.

As is common in multiple point-of-view novels, the main narrative, the story of the search, progresses more or less chronologically through these parts, with each part also incorporating some back-and-forth flashbacks in which we learn about that person’s relationship with “mom”. This multiple point-of-view technique provides a lovely immediacy to the different perspectives. The choice of different voices – first, second and third – though, is an intriguing one. Here is how I see it. First person for “mom” makes sense since she is the subject. Second person feels like a half-way house between the intimate first person and the more distant third person. Using it for Chi-hon and her father, to speak about themselves, subtly conveys a tension between their responsibility for “mom” (which would be expected of their roles as elder daughter and husband) and their regret and guilt for their failings. Third person, on the other hand, seems appropriate for Hyong-chol who, as the oldest in the family, carries the major weight of familial responsibility into the future. It’s the most distant voice and gives, I think, a layer of gravitas to his role.

And last is the theme – or, should I say, themes? The lesser, if I can call them that, themes include the country-vs-city one, particularly in relation to values; literacy and education; and our mutual responsibility for others (something, the family discovers,”mom” took seriously for friends and strangers as well as her family throughout her life). The overriding theme, though, is that of guilt and regret, of having taken “mom” for granted. They all assumed she liked cooking and being in the kitchen, day in day out. The children forgot to call her regularly and didn’t always come home for special occasions. Her husband remembers all the times he failed to help her, while she would put herself out repeatedly for him. It’s a pretty common story but the way Kyung-sook Shin tells it – the form, the reflective tone, the characterisation, the setting – makes this universal story about, really, respect a very personal one. I admit to being a little choked up at the end!

I have one little query though, and that relates to the invocation of Catholicism in the end. “Mom” does, early in the novel, ask about a rosewood rosary, thus providing a link to the the Epilogue, but where did this interest in the rosary come from, given the frequent references to the more traditional ancestral rites during the book? Mom doesn’t explain it – “I just want prayer rosary beads from that country”, “the smallest country in the world”, she says. I assume it has something to do with the recent growth of Catholicism in South Korea. It didn’t spoil the book for me, but it provided a somewhat odd note. All I can say is read the book for yourself, and see what you think.

Please click on my Man Asian Literary Prize page link for reviews by other members of the team.

Kyung-Sook Shin
Please look after mom
(trans. by Chi-Young Kim)
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
ISBN: 9780307593917