Books in Translation, fiction, reviews

Thoughts: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
256 pages
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Publisher: Knopf
Source: Bought it
It’s been one week since Mom went missing. . .

Park So-nyo is an elderly woman who’s trailing behind her husband in a crowded Seoul subway station when the two become separated as it’s time to board. It should have been a routine trip to the city from the country but turns into a mysterious disappearance as hours turn into days without Park’s return. What follows is a sometimes lazy, other times desperate search for Mom by her husband and five grown children as they reflect on their lives with her.

Usually when an author uses a second-person narrative, I can’t read past the first page.  I often find this point of view gimmicky and too distracting to become engaged in the book. I think it speaks volumes of not only Shin’s talent as a writer but Chi-Young Kim’s talent as a translator that PLAM doesn’t read this way.

There’s so much that I can say to describe PLAM. I can tell you that it’s about family and motherly love. I can also say that it’s about guilt and the role of mothers in any culture. As a mother, I can tell you that being a mom is one of the most rewarding roles that I have ever had but it’s also the most demanding and hardest. There’s no off-days, no breaks, and you’re “on call” for the rest of your life. Shin expertly illustrates how much women sacrifice for their children without children always being aware of it. Park is the mother who sells her wedding ring so that her child can have what they need and who’s constantly working in the fields to make sure her children have enough food to eat. I’ve read reviews about this book that described Park as a martyr and I think that shows how cynical people have become of mothers. A martyr is someone who accepts their suffering which is the opposite of this character. Park doesn’t accept her suffering but gets through it without harming others.

Shin does a beautiful job exploring the life of Park through the eyes of her family and herself. Readers learn about a woman who was slowly becoming sicker the older she became, who had headaches that were so bad she couldn’t cry when she learned that her only sister died. But readers also learn the roles about the family has played in Park’s disappearance: the husband who was so selfish that he refused to acknowledge the growing pain his wife was in; the daughter who’s also a famous writer and her inability to have a conversation with her mom about the places she travelled; or the son who was his mother’s favorite but never did enough for her.

You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she once taken a first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harbored the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realization led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mom as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newlywed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.

Even with such a selfish family, I carried hope with each turned page that Park would be found. I hoped that her family would have a chance to write the wrongs of the past. I believe good writing does that: it makes you carry hope when there is none, it makes you even despair with characters as though they are real. I glanced through the eyes of these children as they saw their mother as a person not just a role and admitted their wrongs while wishing for a second chance.

Told with  tenderness, Please Look at Mom is a story that will have readers exploring their own relationships with their moms.

This review has been crossed-posted at Color Online.


26 thoughts on “Thoughts: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin”

  1. It sounds as if this is a very emotionally complex book, and the plight of Park is something that I really want to read for myself. You wrote a beautiful and engaging review, and it makes me want to rush right out and grab this book as soon as I can. Thanks!

  2. I was definitely wondering how I had missed this one. Glad to hear that it is as worthwhile as the cover and description suggested.

  3. I’m glad I ran across your review of this one! It sounds like a great book. I think I might just give this book to my mom for mother’s day! thanks for the review!!

  4. If this book kept you pulled in, in spite of its second person narrative (also not someting that I normally care for), then I am very intrigued. The story line sounds so compelling also, but maybe hard one to read at times for those of us who are mothers.

    1. Valerie, this book really made me think about mothers (my mom and in general), and the stories they have that we, as their children, may never know.

  5. I think second person is fantastic when it’s done well, but I’ve rarely seen it done well. It sounds like it is in this case. I’m jotting this title down.

    1. Kathy, I really agree with you on second-person narrative. It’s rarely down well and I was amazed how easily I was able to plunge into this book. Glad to know you’re adding this to your tbr list.

  6. Oh, no. Second person? I’m so excited to read this book, but I have a really hard time with second person. I trust you though, if you say it’s still good…

  7. What a wonderful review! I’m not a fan of second person narration either but I think this story is one I have to read.

  8. This sounds like a fantastic book. Stunning, really. I hadn’t heard of it until now, but I’ll make a play to read it!!! I hope my ‘brary has it.

    1. Thank you, Niranjana! I feel like Corrigan didn’t read the same book that I did. She obviously didn’t “get” it.

  9. I was trying to remember why I didn’t pick this book at my B&M the other day, but after reading your review, I realized that the 2nd person narration turned me off right away. So I’m glad to hear that it was not an issue for you. Next time, I’m going to read it longer. I’m just worried I’ll bawl through the book. From the reviews I’ve read, I see so many similarities between Park and my mom, so it will be heartbreaking to read it!

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