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The opening of this painfully disturbing novel is enough to chill every?yes, every?reader. Visiting one of their sons in Seoul, his parents are about to enter one of the cars at a subway station. The father, who enters first, believes that his wife is immediately behind him, but when the doors close, he sees her on the other side. By the time he has waited for her at the next station and then subsequently returned to the station where he last saw her, his wife?refereed to as “Mom” throughout the novel?has disappeared. So he goes on to his son’s house and that son, Hyong-chol, calls his three siblings (a brother and two sisters) and their search begins for Mom.
Such is the opening of Kyung-sook Shin’s wrenching novel, Please Look After Mom. “Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.” Mom and Father had lived all of their lives in the country where they farmed. They were not savvy about the city, though they had visited their children in Seoul and other places many times. Both were getting old and there was some fear that Mom, particularly, was showing signs of dementia. But the more significant problem?as Kyung-sook Shin slowly reveals through multiple points-of-view?is the simple fact that Mom was always taken for granted by her four children and her husband. “Mom was Mom.” Period. She would always be there, whenever her children or her husband needed her?the pillar of reliability in the family, devoting every minute of her life to her children’s successes so they would no longer be yoked to the land. And her children were, indeed, successful, hugely successful.
As the chapters unfold and the children begin to reflect on their relationships with Mom, family secrets begin to leak out. When Hyong-chol, the eldest son, was still a child, Father left Mom for another woman. But Mom didn’t flinch; she had the farm, and everyone admired her ability to make anything grow, so she was able to provide for her children, get them schooled. Hyong-chol begins to remember little details?for example, Mom “transferring the meat from her bowl to his,” always denying herself for her children. After the children left home for further education, Mom “felt useless now that all the children had gone their separate ways.” In order to feel needed, she began volunteering her time at a near-by orphanage. Father, who had returned home by then, never even realized what she was doing.
Worse, Father didn’t realize that Mom couldn’t read?that well had Mom managed to conceal the fact. How ironic that one of her daughters became a successful novelist. At the orphanage, Mom got one of the workers to read these novels aloud to her, telling the co-worker that she could no longer read “because of bad eyesight.” True, Mom had little strategies to conceal what she believed were her limitations, but they were all to help others.
After Mom’s disappearance, after the police had been alerted, after the children began a concentrated effort to find Mom, “Every night, they split up into teams and visited homeless shelters, to no avail. Mom?disappeared as if she were a figment of a dream. No trace of her remained. [Hyong-chol] wanted to ask Father whether she had really come to Seoul. Ten days passed since her disappearance, then two weeks, and when it became almost a month, he and his family fumbled around in confusion, as if they had all injured a part of their brains.”
What slowly emerges?from her children and her husband?is the family’s collective guilt. Down to the smallest detail, everyone ignored her. The reason Mom followed him at the subway station was that she always walked behind him. Dad’s realization is narrated in the second person (as is much of the novel): “You’d stopped and waited for her, but you’d never walked next to her, conversing with her, as she wanted?not even once.” They had a silent marriage; yet although Father left Mom many times, he always returned. He always returned to her because of her strength, since he had none of his own.
Mom finally gets her own voice in a revealing chapter after the others have had their say. That section is called “Another Woman,” that is, the woman her children and her husband did not understand. It’s an incredible chapter, full of revelations?not any that improve her situation within the household but present a complex woman never understood by her family. And that chapter with the earlier observations by her children and her husband adds to the growing admiration I have for Please Look after Mom, especially because of Chi-Young Kim’s glowing translation. As I said earlier, this is a painfully honest story, but reading the book will certainly provoke all of us to reconsider the relationships we’ve had with our parents. So look after Dad but, especially, Mom. Never take them her granted.
Please Look After Mom
By Kyung-sook Shin
Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Knopf, 237 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Professor Emeritus of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.