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Fiction

Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

If you are an Far Eastern Asian in your mid 40’s you are likely to have a mother which is less literate, who may have gone through many years of sacrifice bringing up her children, very superstitious and may practice ancestral rites to wade off evil so as not to incur God’s wrath on the family. Her children refer her as simply “Mother”. This Far Eastern Asian mother loves her children but will always favour her eldest son more than her daughters. Despite life is better in the contemporary times, this mother, will scrimp and save still to conserve energy and sustenance so that her resources can be stretched. The children may not understand why their mothers refused to sit back and enjoy herself but Far Eastern Asian mothers are not known to enjoy or pamper herself neither does she understand what “me-time” means, because her raison d’etre for most of her life was her family. She lives mostly in the kitchen cooking one meal after another, she doesn’t necessarily like it but she does it anyway. She is camera-shy. She is humble but not without pride. She hides her illnesses for not worrying her family. Sometimes she may be quick to criticise and harsh in her demands, her children will obey, some not, because it is a filial duty to respect your parents.

Definition: Far Eastern mother refers to mothers of Japan, Korea and Chinese.

This is what the book is all about. It is about a mother named So-nyo, who followed her husband from behind but couldn’t make it pass the door of the underground train and vanishes in the metropolitan “maze” of Seoul. It follows a scene where the siblings erupt into a fight and blame one another for the mother’s disappearance. Each chapter then follows contains a voice of each sibling and most notably the husband, and then the missing mother’s followed by an epilogue.

Paradoxically invisible until absence makes others imagine the life of their mothers, we saw the formation of the mother and wife So-nyo from those who grew up and took her for granted.

The eldest son is, Hyong-Chol, suffused with guilt at having achieved her Mother’s wishes to become a lawyer, instead he became a real estate agent. The daughter, Chi-Hon, increasingly sophisticated with age, is a writer and is irritated by her mother’s superstition and stubborness, and then regrets the distance between mother and daughter. Father, too, has the biggest reason for despair – he didn’t help Mother as she spiralled into illness, both physical and mental, and he became increasingly more self-indulgent, intolerant of his wife. Serve that husband / Father right for a guilt trip of a lifetime for walking too far in front and not caring about what’s behind his back!

You walked in front of your wife your entire life. Sometimes you would turn a corner without even looking back. When your wife called you from far behind, you would grumble at her, asking her why she was walking so slowly. And so 50 years passed. When you waited fro her, she stopped next to you, her cheeks reddened, saying with a smile, “I still wish you’d go a little slower.” You assumed that was how you would live out the rest of your days. But since that day in Seoul Station when you left on the train, that day when she was only a few steps behind you, your wife hasn’t come to you. – page 152

For the first time, the husband and children wonder who is mother, what is her childhood like? Did any of them really know her? Did they realise that she had been illiterate? Could they even remember the colour of the sandals she wore around her septic toe? The family strains and became guilt-ridden under these revelations, both introspective and narrative. There are sightings of a disoriented figure in blue plastic sandals eating out of restaurant dustbins, yet she slips out of the narrative as obliquely as she absents herself from family portraits. Yet, the children haven’t come close to locating their missing mother.

How little they cherished Mother when she was the rock of the family and how much they took her for granted when she is there and miss her when she is not there. The little tragedies of life come to roost, and – may I warn you that, unlike in most redemptive fiction – there are no easy answer in this tender and tragic tale, which is one it gave the most impact to readers who read it and felt the same loss the characters have felt.

The quibble I have is the use of the second- and third-person viewpoints. I lost the plot when too many “You’s” are being used, not exactly sure whose voice it is.

If she wanted to read it that badly, she should have asked me to read it to her.  You rub your dry, rough face with your hands. If your wife had asked you to read her the novel, would you have read it to her? Before she went missing, you spent your days without thinking about her. When you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something, or to blame her or ignore her. Habit can be a frightening thing. You spoke politely with others, but your words turned sullen towards your wife. Sometimes you even swore at her. You acted as if it has been decreed that you couldn’t speak politely to your wife. That’s what you did. – page 131

Some blame the novel for its clumsy and unnatural sentence structure. I don’t think it is the translator’s fault as the translator should stay true to the original text, adding any flowery and powdery touch-up may dilute the authenticity of the author’s text. However, as the pages run with the word you and you and you, it can get wearisome and I was hoping when it will end so that the story could be told in a more natural first or third narrative. Also it can become too melodrama, I know some people falls for melodrama and I can vouch that a lot of the Far Eastern movies and books tend to lean towards tragic melodramatic theatrical plot. A good movie is a sad movie, that kind of assumption. So it doesn’t work for me in this aspect, so in that sense I would agree that the novel borderlined as cliché. I’m beyond melodrama and want my novels to be more factual, calm, cerebral and thought provoking.

Well, that’s me but what other people think about the novel?

Kyung-Sook Shin’s tale surely hit a nerve and went on to win the Man Asian literary prize 2012 (not sure if Chang Rae-Lee being a judge this year contributes to the win) and selling more than 2 million copies inSouth Korea. So she must have done something right. It is good news because many who loves it has great affection or memories of their mothers and their mothers probably fits the mould of the description in the novel. It certainly taps the universal tendency to take one’s mother for granted, it illuminates a mother’s sacrifice, a wife who never receives love from her husband, a woman who gave up her own dream to fulfil the dreams of her children. As the relationship of my mother and I are far from being friends, I didn’t find this novel as tear jerking as many would but I endorse the book’s plea to treat our mother a little better and give her the credits and love that she deserves. If readers of the novel then decide to take their mothers out for a good meal and have her around more often, then I would say this book has made some wins into fortifying good social and family values.

It is my first Korean novel and I sort of like it.

Rating: 

Mother would cook and bring out the food and wash the dishes and clean and hang damps rags to dry. Mother took care of repairing the gate and the roof and the porch. Instead of helping her do the work that she did non-stop, even you thought of it as natural, and took it for granted that this was her job. Sometimes, as your brother pointed out, you thought of her life as disappointing – even though Mother, despite never having been well off, tried so hard to give you the best of everything….. – page 253

Hardback. Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2011; Length: 261 pages; Setting: South Korea. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 22nd May 2012. Translated from the Korean language by Kim Chi-young .

Other views:

Tony’s Reading list : hate it.

Stu@winston’s dad : like it.

About the writer:

Shin Kyung-sook (born 12 January 1963) (Hangul: 신경숙) is a South Korean writer. She is the first Korean and first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 for Please Look After Mother.

Shin Kyung-sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup in Jeolla Province in southern Korea. She was the fourth child and oldest daughter of six. Her parents were farmers who could not afford to send her to high school, so at sixteen she moved to Seoul, where her older brother lived. She worked in an electronics plant while attending night school. She made her literary debut in 1985 with the novella Winter’s Fable after graduating from the Seoul Institute of the Arts as a creative writing major. Shin is, along with Kim In-suk and Gong Ji-young, one of the group of female writers from the so-called 386 Generation.

She won the Munye Joongang New Author Prize for her novella, Winter Fables. Shin has won a wide variety of literary prizes including the Today’s Young Artist Award from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize, Hyundae Literary Award, Manhae Literature Prize, Dong-in Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Oh Yeongsu Literature Prize. In 2009, the French translation of her work, A Lone Room (La Chambre Solitaire) was one of the winners of the Prix de l’Inapercu, which recognizes excellent literary works which have not yet reached a wide audience. The international rights to the million-copy bestseller Please Look After Mother were sold in 23 countries including the United States and various countries in Europe and Asia, beginning with China and has been translated into English by Kim Chi-young and released on March 31, 2011.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

19 thoughts on “Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

  1. It sounds interesting JoV, but doesn’t it get a bit tedious when everyone takes the main character so much for granted?
    BTW, when you say Asian, you do realize that includes countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, where the culture is very very different? The term Asian, used by westerners to mean only Chinese, Japanese ,and Korean people, can be a bit misleading!

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | May 29, 2012, 4:39 am
    • Amrit,
      I think the message has been hammered through several times, which is great. May make some people go “OK OK OK!! I get it” or may make some people cherish their mothers a lot more.

      p/s since it raises so much controversy, I have amended Asian mothers to Far Eastern Asian now.

      Posted by JoV | May 29, 2012, 12:21 pm
  2. Awful book. Awful.

    Can I just say awful again?

    P.S. Just to back up the previous comment, when used in Britain (at least when I lived there) ‘Asian’ meant mainly people from the subcontinent, while here in Oz it’s more commonly used for people from East- and South-East Asia. I’m not sure, but I think the more common meaning in the States is East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese). It’s a word which means different things to different people…

    Posted by Tony | May 29, 2012, 9:00 am
    • Tony,
      I second you Tony. I was about to say in the UK the word Asia refers to Indian of subcontinent. Interesting to note what Australian think otherwise. Lets put the word “FAR” here so that it really meant FAR FAR EASTERN asian!

      Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by JoV | May 29, 2012, 12:22 pm
  3. I abandoned this book and haven’t got around to writing about it yet. I found the writing style annoying and am not a fan of melodrama. Glad you got something out of it :-)

    Posted by farmlanebooks | May 29, 2012, 1:47 pm
  4. I was wondering that something about the title sounds different before realizing that in the US, I think the book released as Please Look After Mom. Anyways, I struggle with the second person narrative, so I’m not sure how much this book will work for me. But I do want to read it otherwise.

    Posted by Athira | May 30, 2012, 11:37 am
  5. I thought you said you like the book – but then, I think, you kind of don’t like it too. Am I right? ;-) I love reading anything Asian – or Far Eastern or well whatever it is that the continent I live on is called. I might give this a try, but then…you like it, don’t like it – me thinks me no like it.

    Posted by Soulmuser | May 30, 2012, 3:28 pm
  6. I feel I in the minority here I loved it mainly for the insight into a changing world the korea of the mother and father and the modern day Korea of the children ,thanks for mention ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | May 31, 2012, 6:45 pm
  7. I have seen this book in the book stores here in Manila. I think I will pass on it for now.

    Posted by Mel u | June 1, 2012, 12:20 am
  8. Hi great review but I was wondering if you could clarify exactly why you tought the book was melodramatic? I loved the book- although I would criticise it for the second person narration which I didn’t understand the meaning behind, though I it worked. Melodrama just isn’t a word which came to mind when I was reading it- Wuthering Heights is melodrama for me. Melodrama is characterised by excessive emotion, baroque settings and so on and I just didn’t see any of that in this novel. Personally I found it very thought provoking and moving.

    Posted by Cathal | July 5, 2012, 2:03 pm
    • Cathal,
      The fact that the siblings fought, and one outpouring of emotions of another even if it not excessive in the characters’ outpouring of sorrow, it is excessive for me reading it as a reader about each character’s inner regret and turmoil, from the start till the end.

      Posted by JoV | July 5, 2012, 3:28 pm
  9. I agree that there were too many ‘you’s that I ended up reading the confusing parts again to get the story right. But I LOVED it! I’m reading it again at a slower pace and savoring each page. Her selfless love for her children and her selfish children made me cry while reading the book and when I finished the book, I want to almost tear it apart because of how the story ended. I could feel the guilt and love of her children as if I was there in front of them while they were discussing their mom or when they were alone in their thoughts.

    I’m now lost what book to read next because I really like this book.

    Posted by Anna Tan | July 31, 2012, 12:11 am
    • Anna,
      I’m glad you love it. It is a sad and tragic end no doubt. If it ends any better, the impact will be lost and it won’t prompt the readers to treat their parents better! lol

      There are so many books out there to read. If you like far eastern fiction, try Chinese or Japanese fiction.

      Posted by JoV | July 31, 2012, 2:57 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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