It’s not often that a book affects me as profoundly as Kyun-sook Shin’s award-winning novel Please Look After Mom did. As much as I read, books should do this to me more often.
I’m still haunted by this story, by its characters, especially by its missing character, a week after reading it. I’ve passed it along to a good friend who has read the first section and already cried three times.
Please Look After Mom is about what it’s like to lose someone and how losing someone can sometimes make us aware that we never really knew that person at all.
Mom is So-Nyo, 69-year-old mother of five, who remained on the train from Seoul one day after her husband got off never to be seen again. At first, the novel reads like a suspense story as the narrator describes the family’s panic and subsequent searching for their lost mother. Why hasn’t she come home? What’s going to happen to her? Has something happened to her already, something that makes it impossible for her to contact her family?
When the narration shifts, as it will between family members throughout the novel, we realize that while So-Nyo has given her life to her family, they never really took the time to get to know her. She provided the support, both physical and spiritual, that her children needed as they grew up, even afterwards, but they came to see her as a burden if they saw her at all. She was a past they wanted to get away from as they moved from near poverty in the countryside to successful lives in the modern city.
This is an idea that probably strikes many readers inside and outside of Korea to the quick. How many of us moved away from home? How many moved away as fast as we could? How many left parents or grandparent behind? More to the point, how many of us really took the time to get to know who they were before we left them?
Please Look After Mom works much of its magic through the use of second person narrators. I will admit a bias against second person narration. I almost always hate it in a novel length work. I can stand being drawn in, forced in more likely, by the use of “you” for a short story, but after a chapter or two, I’ve had more than enough of that, thank you.
Here, though, I found it worked in every way. Initially, the use of “you” served to implicate the reader in a shared guilt over the mother’s disappearance. Why didn’t they do more to find her is not as strong as why didn’t you do more. When the narration shifted to different characters forcing the reader to become someone else, it was initially difficult to figure out what was going on at times, but this didn’t last long. In the end, I felt the book really had a series of first person narrators who refer to themselves as “you” the way some people do when they are exasperated with themselves. “Why do I keep doing that” does not have the same impact as “why do you keep doing that.” The second person narrators seemed to scold themselves, examine themselves critically as they spoke as much as they also implicated the reader in their guilt.
Finally, I’m going to go way out on a limb. I don’t knew nearly enough about Korean society today to be in a position to advance this theory, but I’m not going to let that stop me. Here goes.
While Please Look After Mom works incredibly well on a literal level as the story of one particular family and one particular mother, I think it also works on a metaphorical level. I think So-Nyo can be read as not just one woman but as a type of woman, one who represents a set of standards that was valued in the past but is not as valued today. This woman devoted herself to her family, making sacrifices for her husband and for her children much more extreme than anything most people would consider doing today. S0-Nyo’s own daughters are a bit embarrassed by how much their mother has given up for them, though they do not know the half of it. One daughter is unmarried, childless probably for life, another has children but has sworn she would never sacrifice herself in the extreme way her mother has. I would never let that happen to me is the attitude So-Nyo’s daughters share.
So-Nyo is a type of woman who does belong to the past, few people would argue that any woman should be expected to be this self-sacrificing today, but the novel suggests she is also a type of woman we do not really understand. We do not see her as fully human as she deserves to be seen. We see what she failed to become or what society didn’t allow her to be in stead of seeing the full person she was. Like So-Nyo’s family we do not understand her do not know her until she is gone.
It’s a very deep book. One that will take multiple readings to really grasp. One that I can’t stop thinking (or talking) about.