Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin
In the United States, we sometimes use "lost" as an indirect euphemism for death. We say, "He lost his wife last year." There are also frequent stories in the media of someone lost, an individual (often with dementia) who has wandered away from home, or who has run away. Sometimes the person is quickly found safe and brought home again. In other cases, there is no happy ending. In Please Look After Mom, a family faces the heart-breaking possibility that their mother So-nyo, who is missing, may be dead, and may never be found. She was traveling with their father from their home in a small rural village to Seoul. Usually one of their four adult children would meet their elderly parents at the train station, but this time their father said he could negotiate the subway on his own. On their way to the subway cars, the husband and wife became separated. In the crowd, he did not even realize for some time that she wasn't on the train. When he went back to the station to look for her, she had disappeared.
The book opens with the single line, "It's been one week since Mom went missing." As the children search, frantically and fruitlessly, the story moves back and forth between the present day and the past. They grew up in the small village, where their mother supported the family by farming and also by turning her hand to any kind of craft that could save money or make money, like brewing malt for sale to a local brewery. Herself uneducated and illiterate, she was determined to send her children, including her daughters, to school. Most of this work, and that of caring for the children, fell on her alone. Her husband was often absent, simply walking out of the house and disappearing for long periods. It is never clear what exactly he did during these absences, which usually ended with him quietly returning home and picking up his place in the family's life.
As the children search for their mother, they remember, and their memories spark questions, shake assumptions, change their understanding of their mother and of themselves. The narration for most of the book is in the second person ("The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol's house . . . You decide to make flyers . . . "). It moves between the children and the parents, in five sections that each focuses on a different character (though we hear almost nothing from the second son, not even his name). The story is linear, as it follows the search, but within that frame-work it moves back and forth in time, in people's memories. With the shifts in narrative, we as readers learn things about the different characters, secrets never revealed, which change how we understand the family and especially the mother, So-nyo. I found my picture of her constantly changing as I learned more about her, even in the final chapters.
There is so much going on in this deep, absorbing story. This is the first novel set in South Korea that I have read, and I was fascinated with the setting, with all the details of daily life, both on the farm and in the city. The parents were born in the 1930s, so their lives span the terrifying years of the Korean War, as well as the changes in South Korea after the war, including urbanization and the decline of rural life, as people moved from the farms to jobs in the cities. The father's restless wanderings are a reaction to the stresses of the war, during which he lost both his parents and two brothers, and of the unsettled peace (as well as the challenges of raising four children). One by one, as the children finished their education in the village schools, they followed their eldest brother to Seoul. With jobs and families, their lives were centered in the city, and they returned home less and less often. The younger daughter even moved with her husband to the United States, where they lived for several years before returning home to Seoul.
This story, though, also speaks to universal themes of parents and children: of the shifts in relationship as children become adults and parents themselves; of parents who feel they are losing children to independence and their own lives; of children struggling for that independence yet still reverting to childhood at times; and of the moment when children (sometimes very belatedly and with a sense of shock) realize their parents are individuals with an identity beyond "mother" or "father," with their own stories, their own lives.
This is also a story of profound loss and grief. We are never told directly what has happened to So-nyo, and though we can guess, the family may never know. As hard as the finality of death is, I cannot imagine how one copes with the grief of uncertainty, the fading of hope. The heart-breaking last line, a prayer, gives the book its title: "Please, please look after Mom." I think that might be what many of us feel in the face of death; we crave the certainty that our lost loved one is safe.
Kyung-Sook Shin won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, the first woman to do so. I didn't read any of the other other nominees (though Fay over at Read, Ramble posted about the books and the award itself). I think this is an amazing book, and I am glad to see its excellence recognized in the award, and in reviews both on blogs and in print media.