‘Please Look After Mom’
Written by: Kyung-sook Shin
Rating: Five out of five bookmarks
I believe, as I'm sure many do, that one of the most under appreciated role models in our lives is that of the mother.
When we are young, we often take their mothers' hard work and nurturing for granted, and we assume they will always be there when we need their assistance or advice.
Kyung-sook Shin's debut novel, after gaining much success in its native South Korea and now finally translated into English, presents us with a horrifying scenario: What would you do if your mother just suddenly disappeared without a trace?
"Please Look After Mom" is an interwoven tapestry of accounts depicting the loss and anguish felt by a Korean family when the mother is separated from her husband in a subway and vanishes in the crowd. The family begins a citywide search that continues for months, only to find dead ends and empty leads as to her whereabouts.
The tale is narrated from four different points of view within the family: the daughter Chi-hon, a widely recognized author whose relationship with her mother was not always peaceful; the eldest son Hyong-chol, possibly the mother's favorite out of the five children, who feels he was burdened with the responsibility of watching over the whole family since childhood; the father, a torn man who only now recognizes the deep feelings he has for his wife; and the mother herself, as we see the strange journey she is undertaking and her reflections on her life.
There has been much attention given to novels that portray the very different family values Eastern cultures possess, as compared to our Western model of parenting: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua being a more recent example that has received very intense criticism, and a classic that still resonates with me after many years and "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan, continues to captivate us with its unique perspectives on the mother-daughter relationship.
Even the novel I previously reviewed, "Friendship Bread" by Darien Gee, has the character of a Chinese cellist who contemplates how her parents' strict regimen for her music lessons has drastically affected how she deals with all aspects of her life.
Readers of Western cultures often view these maternal scenarios as too severe or emotionally damaging on children; yet, I find it interesting how we, in this part of the world, are gradually drifting toward the opposite extreme, where a parent cannot even physically discipline a disobedient child anymore without being denounced by neighbors, schools or the general public.
The mother in "Please Look After Mom" is comprised of both the strong-willed determination to shape her children's lives to be prosperous and fulfilling, and the gentle compassion for each of her children that she may not always know how to express.
Only through learning the multiple points of view of the other characters do we discover the mother's hidden nature. While the daughter believes her mother never really cared about her writing career given that the mother doesn't know how to read, the father finds out the mother was having a caretaker at a local orphanage read her daughter's books to her.
Kyung-sook Shin has crafted soul-touching moments out of the simplest of her characters' gestures, and makes all of her characters sympathetic, genuine and unforgettable.
For Mother's Day, "Please Look After Mom" is the perfect novel to remind us just how much a mother unites an entire family and how they are always a part of us even when they might be separated from us.
No matter what the culture or what part of the world, the mother holds a sacred place in the life of every father, daughter and son.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.