Kyung-sook Shin's PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Mom is 69 years old. One day she is separated from her husband in the Seoul subway station. He doesn’t realize she’s missing till the next subway stop. Thus begins the search for Mom told from the perspective of her children, her husband, and eventually by Mom herself.
As we move back-and-forth in time we learn details about this family and how their experiences in a modernizing Korea have brought them to the point they are today. Beautifully translated into English from the Korean by Chi-young Kim, the level of realistic character detail in this novel is enormous and grossing. As we move through the stories as told by the different characters a picture of Mom emerges that is complex, richly detailed, and utterly recognizable.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of her personality is that, despite poverty, a lack of education, rural isolation, and a family that often takes her for granted, her fundamental nature is to grow and nurture the people and things around her no matter what the cost is to herself. She farms her family‘s property, prepares meals and stores food, feeds neighborhood children, all the while forcing her children to work hard and pursue their studies. She does all this in spite of having a husband from an arranged marriage who is frequently absent.
Mom is a complex character. I have seldom met other characters in literature that compare. One that does come to mind is Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage, with one main difference being that Mother Courage’s context is raising a family during wartime.
Mom, on the other hand, raises a family in a modernizing Korea where rural and urban changes are radically modifying traditional ways of life. While there is much about Korean culture in terms of food, language, family, and tradition that will be unfamiliar to Western readers, the author’s superbly insightful perspective on human relationships powers through everything. The people in this book, especially Mom, seem real and their emotions recognizable. That’s quite an accomplishment and is something that makes this one of the best novels I have read in years.
Review (c) copyright 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald. Thanks to Kyong-ju for loaning me this book.