Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. Random House Canada 2011. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.
Good old mom. No one really gives her life too much thought. Not her husband, not her two sons or two daughters. She’s always there, living her old-fashioned life, out of touch with the times.
So it seems to Park So-nyo’s family, until the day that Mom disappears and their lives are suddenly disrupted. It happens at the train station. As Mom and Dad travel from their rural village to bustling Seoul to visit, they become separated. Dad climbs onto the packed subway car, but Mom is left behind at the station. It takes a few minutes for Dad to miss her, so accustomed is he to having Mom trail several paces behind him as he surges ahead. He returns to the station on the next subway train, but there is no sign of Mom anywhere. The search for Mom begins. Please Look After Mom is told in several voices as Pook So-nyo’s family think back on their life with Mom and what they know of her. Pook So-nyo herself also takes a turn as narrator.
Pook So-nyo married a stranger in an arranged marriage after the Korean War. She did not wish to leave her own mother, but those were treacherous times. While desperate soldiers still hid in the hills, it was safer for a young woman to have a husband. For his part, her spouse was ambivalent about his new wife and married life. He still had wild oats to sow, and as Pook So-nyo took on the task of raising a young family, he often absented himself to be with other women or to travel. But sooner or later, he always came back.
Slowly, Pook So-nyo’s secrets come to light. She hid her own illiteracy from her children. Her husband learns belatedly that she was a longtime respected volunteer at a local orphanage. Some secrets, Pook So-nyo shares with no one. Her family is unaware of her closest confident, Lee Eun-gyu, who she turned to for support in her darkest hours. Family members guiltily recall how they dismissed the signs of Mom’s growing dementia and ill-health.
Hand in hand with Pook So-nyo’s story is that of Korea itself. Her children, for whom she worked so hard, leave their rural roots behind and move to the big city of Seoul to start careers. Their lives are nothing like those of their parents, even though some traditional cultural expectations persist. Please Look After Mom is at once an interesting memoire of Pook So-nyo’s life and an examination of our closest relationships and how we connect to the people who share and shape our lives.