Please Look After Mom (Knopf, 2011) by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by Chi-Young Kim, is a novel that opens like a murder mystery and transforms into a poetic, tragic, and ultimately redemptive ode to all those who are lost. The novel is the story of a mother who is separated from her husband and left behind at a busy city subway platform, after which she simply vanishes without a trace. Her children, each with their own busy lives, come together to create flyers and search for their missing mother, and the novel charts their realisation that, in fact, they were watching the gradual disappearance of their mother for far longer than her physical absence suggests. The story is an achingly simple one, but powerful in its simplicity–the strikingly sparse prose adding to a haunting atmosphere of regret and loss. Originally a novel from South Korea, the translated story bridges cultural divides and shows how the past can be easily lost, wherever you come from and whatever your traditions.
The first chapter of the novel is written in second person, which immediately sets the reader on the outside, as if we too are forced into not knowing, or only knowing what we can deduce second hand. A brave narrative choice for the first chapter, it works because the character portrayed, that of a selfish, yet sensitive, daughter, suits the viewpoint and she is strong enough not to be hidden by the questioning nature of the narrative. Even though it is written in second person, the first chapter propels the reader into the heart of the story, into the regret and loss and utter bewilderment of someone whose mother has gone missing, but also into the main moral of the story–that you must stop what you’re doing, even if just for a moment, and support the ones who have nurtured you and also learn who they are before it is too late.
The second person narrative adds tension to the chapter, asking questions of the main character and of you, the reader. It pokes and prods you, wants you to feel the pain of not knowing, but also the pain of knowing too much. For instance we learn that the daughter, although now a successful writer, realised too late that her mother was illiterate and never spent the time to teach her mother to read, or telephone her mother regularly, only getting angry with her mother when she visited and brought food, and refused to stay the night. It is somehow the small moments of neglect that were the most powerful images to read, as evidenced by the scene where the mother refuses to stay in the city and takes the last train home, walking in the dark back to her country home, her food parcels emptied and her sweat stained towel still unwashed, a mother forgotten and alone.
Despite the strength of the second person beginning, the one technical flaw in this novel is the changing narrative viewpoint; the book moves into second person then third, back to second, and first, and then finally back to second person. It not only disrupted the flow of the novel, but often felt as if the writer was purposefully manoeuvring the reader into making emotional decisions regarding the character even before their story was told. This felt like the reader was being preached to at times, and this sometimes left me questioning whether the whole book was in fact a little emotionally manipulating without a need to be, as the story itself was more than powerful enough to convince the reader of the dangers of neglect.
The atmosphere of the novel is tense, sometimes uncomfortably so, oddly not because of the search for the mother, but because the reader is there as each character realises that they do not know their mother. We are watching as they desperately trawl their memories for small details, to once again piece her together into something they can grasp. This is where the true beauty of Please Look After Mom lies, in the moments where the mother is once again alive, and where the prose has a bittersweet mix of sadness, compassion, loss and also, ultimately, hope. A novel that soothes even as it scalds, Please Look After Mom is a captivating read, and one which resonates long after it has ended.