Kyung-sook Shin’s 2009 novel “Please Look After Mom” is the tale of a mother’s disappearance. It is a story told through a series of flashbacks, each chapter taking on a different relative’s perspective, designed to give the reader a sense of the woman they’ve lost. It has only been translated into English this year, though it has had print runs in 19 countries.
“Please Look After Mom” is very clearly intended for a middle-aged readership, which means I am not the target demographic. The book is preoccupied with the past and contains an affection for the way things used to be; it’s pretty much crack cocaine for the 40+ literate crowd. Despite not being particularly courted by the author, I did enjoy the book. Part of it is a universality of themes: anyone with a remotely stable mother figure, even one sibling and a capacity for nostalgia can relate.
Each chapter is told from a different perspective — the woman’s children or spouse, or herself. It’s a technique which allows for both a clearer picture of the title character (as well as motherhood and all those other exciting tropes) and of the family as a whole as they bounce back and forth between coolly supporting each other and struggling to remain civil through old, repressed tensions and sharp new ones.
The book is also technically well-executed, and contains some interesting stylistic decisions.
While flashbacks have a tendency to bog down the reader, Shin makes generous use of vignettes. The repeated breaks keep the reading light, and the continual starts lend the piece momentum. While every child’s narrative is packed with flashbacks, perhaps the most past-obsessed section is the first. This makes sense: Shin needed to set the stage and tack emotional weight to the details of the mother’s life as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The chapters drift between first, second and third person. Second person is perhaps the rarest narrative mode and of course more intimate than third person (and arguably first person as well). The insistence of the story that “You do this,” “You do that,” is fresh at first but rapidly becomes confrontational. It’s accusatory and turns the guilt and self recrimination of the eldest daughter and father directly into emotional impact. In the case of the eldest daughter’s chapter, the mantra “I should have been at home” gets repeated from different angles throughout the first section, and turns sharp with the second person narrative. The father’s chapter is consumed with guilt — from a mangled and secretive marriage to survivor’s guilt.
If there are any complaints about this book, my guess is they will be in regard to the perspective shifts. Each chapter is clearly delineated, but at first readers are unsure whose eyes they’re looking through. It was clearly intentional I believe to act as a short-lived engine/hook for each chapter. I have to wonder if it was more clear in Korean, as the use or disuse of honorifics would make the relative age of the narrator immediately apparent. All the same, it’s not incomprehensible in English, and forcing the reader to do a little work makes them invest more in the story and its characters. Should you read “Please Look After Mom,” persevere through the confusion. It’ll prove worth it.
Shin puts each piece of the novel on display; you can track each technique, see each element at work, and easily divine the purpose of every choice she made. While some stories seem a haphazard scramble of ingredients mashed together, which sometimes are good seemingly by accident (they’re not, of course, but they play at chaos), “Please Look After Mom” has next to zero mess. Instead of a casserole slop, Shin’s crafted some very high class kimbap. Each ingredient, each technique used, is presented clearly and placed precisely where it’s most effective. If you are looking for a well written, thoughtfully constructed family drama, “Please Look After Mom” is for you.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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