Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

 

Originally appeared in the Bangkok Post

 

Please Look After Mom is, let’s be honest, a pretty silly title. But it’d be a shame if the awkward, maudlin title has lost Shin Kyung-Sook any readers. Translated beautifully into English by Kim Chi-Young, Shin’s exploration of loss and regret won her the Man Asian Literary Prize last year—the first time the prize has been awarded to a female novelist. But that’s not why you should read it. Please Look After Mom is a rare work of fiction where it is more form and language, rather than plot and characterization, that compels the reader to participate in the narrative’s trauma—in this case, the loss of your mother.

Yes: your mother. She and your father traveled from the country to visit you and your siblings in the city; in the subway station, she became separated from your father, and disappeared. You’ve posted flyers (“You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom,“ you think), searched your old neighborhoods she could never navigate herself, and followed-up on sightings of a dazed-looking woman eating sushi from a dumpster, or trying to enter a stranger’s home—all without any luck. Your family is reeling, numb yet increasingly frantic in the wake of this loss. “You all blamed each other for Mom’s going missing,” Shin writes, but it has become clear to you, the reader, that you all blame yourself for the loss, for not looking after her.

Shin’s use of the second person “you” is intentionally disorienting. Many readers will find it unfamiliar. While Carlos Fuentes, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore, and Chuck Palahniuk have wielded this point of view effectively in their fictions, the imperative, accusatory “you” can more often ring false, too archly postmodern. But Shin adroitly harnesses this disorientation and frisson (who is this “you,” the reader must ask, if it isn’t me? Or is it me?) to force you, the reader, to feel complicit in the regret of this family. In the first section, even as it becomes clear who this “you” is—Chi-hon, the eldest daughter and a famous Korean novelist—this friction of guilt between you (the reader and the character) remains. And the point-of-view shifts to a somehow equally disorienting third person, and we are accompanying the eldest son, Hyong-Chol, enveloped in his own guilt: “his heart brims with the desire to do nothing but look after Mom when she’s found. But he has already lost that chance.”

Pronoun to pronoun, character to character, guilt is passed like a musical theme that can’t resolve. The novel unfolds primarily as forgotten memories that come rushing in—a flash flood, spring freshet— to fill the void of Mom’s absence: memories “and the regret that always trailed each memory.”

“Only after Mom went missing did you realize that her stories were piled up inside of you, in endless stacks,” Chi-hon is told (or tells herself—who exactly is addressing her, you, here?). While no single family member holds a complete portrait of who Park So-nyo—Mom—is (or was), it is only the corporation of these fractured, discordant memories, only a polyphony of voices that allows something like the truth of Mom’s life to come into focus. But the novel suggests that, sadly, this is never really possible: we are always vanishing from one another.

Wild Japanese plum juice, fermented clams, ground perilla seed, copper bowls for kimchi: Shin invests Mom’s kitchen and larder with nostalgia, the ache for the unrecoverable food of home. Like pastoral poems of the English renaissance, or Virgil’s Georgics many centuries before, Please Look After Mom is the product of an urbanizing world where people like Shin and her characters witness what has been lost in the flight from country to city life. And Shin seems to portray this vanishing intimacy with the land—its stories, birds, and ghosts—as a way of revealing a still deeper loss in Korean society.

Filial piety—the duty of care for your parents and ancestors—has traditionally been essential to Korean experience. As Park So-nyo’s family searches Seoul and their own memories for their lost mother, it becomes palpable how she alone tried to keep these traditions alive: maintaining the ancestral alter, leaving flowers on graves. As the father would wander from his marriage and the children sought modern, professional lives in Seoul and America, Mom struggled against this familial entropy from history and culture, even as she longed for release herself.

While modern South Korean fiction has engaged the traumatic aftermath of the schism of North from South, some of the most popular contemporary novels favor edgy postmodern tales of a globalized Seoul, fictions that, too, seem to turn away from tradition. Shin’s novel is in dialogue with both trends. Chi-Hon, a novelist, and Hyong-chol, a marketing director for a real-estate developer, each an exemplar of Korea’s successful urban younger generation, inhabit a Lotus-eater state of forgetting and rootlessness that only their mother’s actual, corporeal loss begins to wake them from. Yet the consequences of alienation—from family, history, your own memory—that Shin conjures are not limited to South Korean society: any reader sensitive to language’s capacity to wake what slumbers, drugged, inside each of us will be stirred by the novel.

Late in the novel, Shin allows the reader to live inside the world Mom created for herself before and after her loss, a landscape inhabited by forbidden love, stillborn children, ancestors in the form of birds, ghosts who linger in their empty, winter homes. What is real, what is imagined? Who has crafted this story, imagined all these memories drawn together? Who is the “I” that speaks to the shifting, searching “you”? Shin has left this for you, the reader, to decide.

At the novel’s end, you find yourself in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Eternal City. You glimpsed signs of Korea’s Christianization throughout Please Look After Mom, and you read elsewhere that that the culture seems to have successfully reconciled Confucian ancestor veneration with Catholic precepts (if not, yet, Protestant doctrine). Yet, in the Basilica, facing the Pieta behind glass, you can’t help feel that maybe these traditions have not been resolved. Witness to an ecstasy of spiritual hope and pain before the statue of the Virgin mother holding Christ, her dead son, you can’t help but sense that, for Korea’s younger generation, the traditions of veneration and care for the dead—and the living—may be lost in the nova-like beatific embrace of something foreign, someone else’s mother.

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