"She says all the things that have happened are actually in the present, that old things are mixed in with current things, and current things mingle with future things, and future things are combined with old things; it's just that we can't feel them."
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin deals with all of the past, present and future things of a Korean family whose mother/wife goes missing. The story of this family, torn asunder when their ever-present mother, Park So-nyo, seems to just disappear at a Seoul subway station, is told in part by a daughter, a son and a husband—and later in the thoughts of Park So-nyo herself.
The story is both unique to the Korean culture, in the retelling of customs and festivals, and universal in its sense of family and love and blame and loss. At the heart of it all is one concept: mother. Expectations that a mother has of her own life and for her family's lives—and the expectations that a family has of this person who is mother.
"How did Mom feel all those years in that old-fashioned kitchen, cooking for our big family?...You were caught off guard. You had never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom. You never wondered, Did Mom like being in the kitchen?"
The three family members share their recollections of this unassuming woman as they search for her, as they strive to understand where it is she might have gone and how she could have vanished so suddenly and so completely. All are plagued by the guilt of what they might have done differently, or better, or sooner, or more often—regret for what might have been. All three become aware of how little they really knew, how little they had actually tried to learn, about this woman who was central to all of their lives, but who was taken so much for granted. Did she have her own thoughts or feelings? For, in truth, all that was seen was what she did for them, the dreams she had for them, the sacrifices she made for them.
Please Look After Mom is a heart-wrenching and painfully honest account of family and relationships. The author has compassionately captured the myriad emotions of one family as they search and struggle and remember. Indeed the feelings are so well articulated that this reader, and no doubt others, could sense them, experience them and be drawn into personal memories of family and time gone by. It's not always what I would call a comfortable read, especially if one has ever struggled with family relationships; however, it is so well done and so thought-provoking that it is a rewarding one.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Kyung-sook Shin is one of the best known novelists in South Korea, and the recipient of numerous awards there. Currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University, she lives in Seoul. Please Look After Mom is her first book to be translated into English.
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