Pros: Beautifully written, disturbing and may not be for everyone.
Cons: Very dark themes abound here, and might distress some.
I tend to be rather omnivorous in my reading selections -- if it looks at all interesting to me, I'll go for it. And of late, I've been interested in boos set in or about North or South Korea. When I started to hear some pretty impressive reviews about this new author, I knew I had to get a copy for myself.
Set in the here-and-now of South Korea, Please Look After Mom, tells the story of a family that starts to disintegrate after the mother disappears. When the aging parents come to Seoul, the mother, Park So-nyo, simply vanishes in a crowded train station. At first the family can't quite comprehend what has happened, and the novel traces the aftermath of this tragedy, and we follow the story in five sections, each one narrated by one of the survivors.
The first section, Nobody Knows, is told by the youngest daughter, Chi-hon, a successful writer who is chosen to write up the missing person flyers. As she struggles with her own emotions, and the piecemeal data that she is able to find, we find out that there are many unanswered questions and tensions simmering under the apparently calm surface.
I'm Sorry, Hyong-chol is just as jarring and heartbreaking as the eldest son and child takes up the story. Hyong-chol was his mother's favourite, and the one that she pinned her hopes on -- her dream was to see this clever son become a man of real standing, a judicial prosecutor. But he has never quite gotten there, and the misery and guilt over his mother's vanishing is slowly eating him alive, but he's also too proud to admit to it either...
If there are feelings of guilt in the first two chapters, then there is ambivalence and anger in the third, I'm Home, narrated by the father of the family, Yun, which reveals the hidden, secret side of our parents that children only find out later in life, if at all. The marriage between Yun and his wife was not the best to say the least. Here we find out a secret that So-nyo has kept from everyone, and once one is revealed, the others start to come pouring out. We discover how the couple met, and the lies and betrayals that followed, to the point where So-nyo vanishes. While more sightings of their wife and mother are reported and followed up on, the disintegration continues.
Finally, there is Another Woman, told by Park So-nyo herself, and the stories begin to come full circle, and some understanding starts to emerge. An Epilogue, Rosewood Rosary, brings the story to a conclusion of sorts.
I have to say that this was one of the more ambiguous novels that I've ever read, without any real plot or story to it, but rather a revelation of a family's secrets and how everyone deals with it in turn. It's not a very long novel -- more of an extended novella -- but it hardly has any wasted space to it. A great deal of about life and relationships are shown in this one, and some of those truths are very shattering indeed.
Besides the emotional content, one thing I did find interesting was how South Korea has evolved since the 1950's and the contrast between the parent's life in the countryside in what can be only described as poverty, and those of their successful children in Seoul is something that was hard to understand at first. Another aspect that I found interesting were the remnants of Confucianism, mostly in terms of ancestral rites that the mother is careful to perform, but also the Catholicism that the family practices as well, with both being apparently together without any conflict. Other social issues, such as illiteracy and alcoholism are also looked at, with devastating results.
This was originally published in Korean in 2008 under the title of O-ma rul Put'akhae, in a slightly different form. The English translation is by Chi-young Kim, and it feels right. Each of the characters has his or hers own distinct voice, and way of speaking, which helped to bring the characters across the divide of culture and language.
All in all, while this book is not for everyone, I found it to be a rather moving account of a family that is caught between the traditions of the past and a very modern society, and trying to maintain those connections. Whether they succeed or not is what this story is about. Four stars overall.
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for adding this to the database for me!
Please Look After Mom
Kyung-sook Shin, Chi-young Kim, translator
2011; Alfred A. Knopf, Doubleday Books