Please Look After Mother (2008) – Kyung-Sook SHIN

In a desperate attempt to inject some more women writers’ into my diet, I’ve been scouring the shelves at work to find something that seems interesting. I know very little about Korean literature, and I hope I’m not being insulting when I say I’m not alone. So when I saw a recent novel by a female Korean author, it was as though my stars had aligned. I couldn’t not read it, could I?

When someone goes missing, how does the gap affect the people who knew them? And when it’s your mother who disappears, what do you do? When Park So-nyo goes missing, her children and husband scour the streets of Seoul to try to get her back. As they do, though, they being to realise that they have always taken her for granted, and never given anything back – and in turn, they must relive their own relationships, and examine just how much their mother meant to them.

There’s so much to love in this novel. I don’t want to make too many generalisations, but I’m going to – so look away now if you’re easily offended. The role of the woman in both Japan and Korea, and China, too, has been heavily affected by Confucianism, and these “traditional values” are still firmly in place today – it is the role of the woman to look after the kids, the husband, and only after that, herself. This book captures the spirit of that perfectly.I’ve met people just like Mother in this novel. They are truly lovely people, willing to do almost anything for their kids, and at the same time, there’s just a tinge of regret in their faces, wondering what their lives could have otherwise been.

And before people get too angry, I want to point out that I don’t think this is a Confucianism-sphere specific thing – we’ve all, at some point in our lives, taken our mothers for granted. So often we forget that our mothers have lives of their own – that they are people, too.

How, then, do people react when they realise they haven’t told their mother that they do love them? Shin goes through three characters that could so easily be reduced to stereotypes, but she manages to avoid it, and gives us three people desperately grieving for a person whose fate they may never know. The oldest daughter, now a successful author, was the rebellious daughter, the one we all know, where the mother-daughter relationship is so fragile, the slightest wind can break it. The oldest son, the favourite of the family, pampered, but also heavily responsible for his younger siblings. The cheating husband, who has relied on his wife his entire life to cook, clean, look after him, and bear his children. Each takes up the story, and slowly, Mother’s life is revealed. Her name is mentioned only a handful of times in the entire novel – a potent sign of how other’s view here. That, or the translation is so good, it takes into account that Korean people talk about their family members by their roles – much like in Japan.

With hindsight, all of these characters are able to clearly see the faults in their relationship with this woman, and the signs that clearly not everything was ok. The constant headaches noticed by the oldest daughter, for example, or the breast cancer that the husband tries desperately o ignore because he just didn’t care. In many ways, this woman comes off as a saint of the highest order, simply for dealing with a shitty family. And we need to be careful here – I don’t think the family was doing it out of any kind of spite, malice, or even doing it consciously – that is simply the way they treated her, and that was that.

The final section is from Mother’s point of view, and it beautifully undercuts the rest of the novel, but fleshing Mother out as a real person, not just as memories of other people. One incident in particular is touchingly revealed, and we finally being to understand why any woman would put herself through all the torture Mother has. It is clear, too, that she has a life away from the family – there’s a beautiful moment when you discover that Mother, who is illiterate, has been getting someone to read out her daughter’s novels to her. Too ashamed to admit that she can’t read, she blames here eyes. The idea that a mother can only read her daughter’s novels through having someone else read them out to her is beautiful. And sad. So very sad.

This is a deceptively simple novel. There is so much more going on here than I would have given it credit for before I opened it. So many ideological battles are being played out underneath this plot: city and country, male and female, generational change – it’s all in here. If all Korean literature is this good (well, the translated stuff, at least), be prepared to see a whole load more of it here.

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27 thoughts on “Please Look After Mother (2008) – Kyung-Sook SHIN

  1. If you are interested in Korean literature (particularly the modern variety) you might want to check out http://www.ktlit.com which covers and review nothing but Korean modern literature. One of the pages there is “reviews” (containing about 50 relatively extensive ones), another page links to free Korean lit online, and another has general suggestions as to what to read if you are a relative newcomer to Korean literature (these last two are linked on the right sidebar)

    Have fun!

    Charles.

  2. [...] read Shin Kyun-sook’s rather excellent Please Look After Mother earlier in the year, I was keen to get my hands on some more modern Korean literature. This novel [...]

  3. Hi Matt: I’m a new visitor to your site, linked in by Lisa in your new role as Shadow Man Asia Prize juror. So I had not seen this review before and very much appreciate having my attention drawn to it — your thoughts indicate it is a very good book. And I will certainly be looking forward to your thoughts on the rest of the longlist.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Hey Kevin! Welcome to my corner of the interwebs. I read your blog on a pretty regular basis, so it’s cool to see you here!

  4. Catherine says:

    I’ve come here from Whispering Gums – sounds like a very sensitive book. I’d like to read this one.

  5. [...] MURAKAMI The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY Please Look After Mother – Kyung-Sook SHIN (Me; Stu) The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake [...]

  6. Fay says:

    Amazon-US has named this book one of the top ten Best Books in Literature and Fiction, 2011. I hope it is that good. Looking forward to it.

  7. [...] See Stu’s review at Winston’s Dad and Matt’s review at a Novel Approach. [...]

  8. [...] at Winston’s Dad thought better of it than I did, and so does Matt at A Novel Approach.  Bella Frey at London/Korean Links liked it too, and Pico Iyer’s review at the Wall St [...]

  9. [...] at Winston’s Dad thought better of it than I did, and so does Matt at A Novel Approach.  Bella Frey at London/Korean Links liked it too, and Pico Iyer’s review at the Wall St [...]

  10. [...] Earth – Anuradha ROY (Me; Fay; Sue; Mark) Please Look After Mother – Kyung-Sook SHIN (Me; Lisa; Mark; Stu) The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay; Lisa) Dream of Ding Village [...]

  11. [...] Please Look After Mother – Kyung-sook SHIN My introduction to contemporary Korean literature, this best-selling novel in South Korea is a touching and heartbreaking reminder of how important mother’s are to all of us. Through her cast of narrators, Shin’s exploration of modern Korean values in the face of rapidly expanding consumerist values reminds us of the importance of family, no matter who we are. [...]

  12. [...] of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook The Valley of Masks – Tarun J. TEJPAL Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake [...]

  13. [...] The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul BHATTACHARYA River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake – YOSHIMOTO [...]

  14. [...] Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin. [Note: US editions are entitled Please Look After Mom.] Reviews by Matt, Lisa, Mark, and [...]

  15. [...] Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin. [Note: US editions are entitled Please Look After Mom.] Reviews by Matt, Lisa, Mark, [...]

  16. [...] all read the book now and our responses have varied. See other Man Asian Shadow Jury reviews by Matt, Lisa, Mark, Stu, and [...]

  17. [...] Please Look After Mother has won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Clearly we and the judges have similar (read: good) taste. Woo! [...]

  18. [...] those doubting our taste, we did pick the eventual winner, Please Look After Mother, several days before the real jury did – a surprise to us as much as anyone else. And if you [...]

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