Please Look After Mom – By Kyung-Sook Shin
A review by Emily Slagel
Please Look After Mom, a novel by the popular South Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin, sold over a million copies within the first year of its release. Critically acclaimed internationally, it is the first of Kyung-Sook Shin’s books to be published in English.
The novel tells the story of a family desperately searching for its missing mother, Park So-nyo, after she is separated from her husband in the crowded Seoul Subway Station. The story follows the shocked and devastated emotional responses of the husband and children as they deal with personal regrets and guilt caused by their treatment of the woman they called “wife” and “Mom.”
For those readers seeking a fast-paced and emergent plot, this is not the book for you. There is no heart-pounding action. The plot does not move forward quickly, if at all. It is, instead, a novel rooted in the world of self-reflection and internal character development which follows a single catastrophic event.
In reading this novel, one is given a look into the very real divide between an older generation who survived the Korean War, and the young, working generation of today. Many do not understand the troubling reality which was Korea when the war finally ended; poverty prevailed, people lived in fear, and had no means of survival except the use of their own hands. “Mom” is of this generation. This generation worked and toiled to educate their children, making their children’s lives better than their own. Through hard work, this generation brought their third world country into a first world economy. Even today, when walking through the streets of Seoul, you will see the elderly working to clean their streets. You will see old men collecting cardboard boxes to be recycled and older women selling their vegetables in the market. Many forget that it is on the backs of these elders’ efforts that a country torn by war is given new life.
Within the novel, Mom’s children, like so many others, become consumed by the now fast-paced society. Their lives revolve around jobs, friends, and homes. They do not have to think of the struggles their mother experienced when making them strong.
In Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin is giving us a cautionary tale of remembrance. She tells of the need to remember one’s history and roots in an ever-shifting and changing society. It is not an anti-feminist and anti-modernist story, as a Western reader might believe, but instead a tale of a pleading demand for one to remember those toiling roots which brought their society so far.
Kyung-Sook Shin tackled this cautionary tale by writing in the much avoided second-person voice. This is an unusual directness in Korean speech and writing. This voice adds an extra edge to the story, causing the reader to feel as if they are being condescended and lectured to because this is not only a tale of a family, but also a reminder and lesson to the reader.
Though the story gives a truly heartbreaking and a fully fleshed depiction of a shifting Korean culture, it does leave much to be desired in logical believability. The novel begins with what seems to be a very human depiction, a family struggling with remorse and loss, but becomes befuddled and lost behind the absurdly saint-like character of “Mom.” It seems all of nature, including puppies, fields, orphans, babies, and the poor found her hands to be those of healing. In other words, “Mom” was too good. She becomes unrelatable as the novel progresses, making her character frustrating and a hindrance to the reader. Her extreme selflessness is a loving attribute, but as the novel continues, it becomes ridiculous, even more so because her family members are the only ones to be blind toward the value of this woman.
Overall, Please Look After Mom was a highly enjoyable, but saddening, novel because of its culturally educating intent and its endearingly thoughtful nature. As I read, I continuously thought of my own mother. I often would find myself questioning my own actions throughout childhood and wondering how happy my mother is. Much of the novel’s popularity stemmed from its thoughtful and cautionary lesson against forgetting the importance of love and remembering ones roots.
Emily Slagel holds a bachelor’s degree in the Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. She also is certified to teach English as a second language. Currently, Emily lives and works in Daejeon, South Korea. Outside of her love of literature, Emily is an avid swing dancer and rower.