Please Look After Mom

Is Mom taking over the universe? From Sarah Palin to Cindy Sheehan, from Amy "Tiger Mother" Chua to Michelle "First Mom" Obama, everywhere you look: there's Mom, throwing her weight around and telling us off one minute, defending and nurturing us the next. Simply put, we are living in the Age of Mom, and it seems entirely possible that her huge presence and growing power are behind the appearance in this country of Kyung-sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, the first of this acclaimed South Korean writer's novels to appear in English.


Park So-nyo, 69-year-old mother of five, has gone missing. Arriving in Seoul from the countryside with her husband of over 50 years to visit their children, she has been accidentally left behind on a crowded subway platform. Her husband, as he had throughout their married life, simply assumed she was following him. Well, this is the last time anyone takes Mom for granted. Now begins a search, carried out by her children and husband, that becomes an emotional, remorse-filled exploration of the past and a chastening discovery of the Mom nobody knew.


Poor Mom. Born in 1936, she was married off against her wishes at a young age to save her from being carried off in one of the frequent raids made by renegade North Korean soldiers after the end of the Korean conflict. After their marriage, her husband disappeared for long periods, leaving Mom to give birth to and provide for their growing number of children. This she managed by ceaseless toil and scrimping, to which she added further labor and sacrifice in order to scrape together the money to educate at least some of the children. Her own illiteracy was one of her greatest sorrows: "I lived in darkness," she reflects, "with no light, my whole life."


Mom subsumed her needs, no matter how pressing, to those of everyone else, a self-sacrifice that was a matter of will power, obdurate humility, and singular intransigence. She would not see a doctor until forced to despite occasions of serious illness. Indeed, for the last few years before her disappearance, she had been wracked by debilitating headaches and was increasingly prey to bouts of confusion. Alone in the city, she cannot survive on her own.


Needless to say, her loss makes everyone feel guilty as hell. Her eldest son excoriates himself for failing to meet his parents at the Seoul Station; instead, he had been at a sauna sweating out the previous night's booze. A daughter, now a well-known writer, recalls with dismay that she had been flipping through the pages of one of her own novels at a book fair when her mother was abandoned on that chaotic platform. As for Mom's husband: his sins are beyond counting. The days and weeks pass, and possible Mom-sightings are reported. A dirty, seemingly addled woman resembling So-nyo is spotted in places where her children had once lived after leaving the country.


It must be said this novel comes very close to being just plain maudlin; still, it is saved by a couple of elements. For one thing, much of the story, which is told from several points of view including Mom's, is pursued in the second person. The tactic produces a sense of immediacy and urgency which delivers a fine accusatory punch: "You'd meet to discuss how to find Mom and one of you would unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her in the past. The things that had been suppressed, that had been carefully avoided moment by moment, became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked and banged out the door in a rage."


Further, the gathering weight of Mom's sorrows and her family's shame, remorse, and pity are counterbalanced by the novel's concrete detail and Shin's storytelling shrewdness. Bit by bit, episodes from the past emerge to provide glimpses of So-nyo's unknown and surprising private life, as well as a picture of the rigors of a material world that has disappeared as far as her children are concerned. Events take place on the cusp of Korea's economic development, when, through ceaseless labor and self-denial, a pre-industrial generation squeezed from itself every ounce of surplus to produce an affluent modern one.


Shin describes a peasant way of life—of scarcity confronted by heroic toil and frugality—wonderfully. Scene after richly detailed scene shows planting, harvesting, cooking, and preserving; the primitive dwellings and the formidable nature of distance. Mom's indefatigable provision for her children continues even when they've moved to attend school in the city, three of them living in one rented room. Her eldest son remembers her arriving laden with bundles:

The side dishes that came out of the newspapers and plastic and squash leaves were moved onto plates and into bowls from the cupboard, and Mom brushed off her hands, quickly peeled the covers off the blankets, and washed them. She made kimchi with the salted cabbage she had brought, and scrubbed the pot that had turned black from the coal fire, and cleaned the portable stove until it shone, and sewed the covers back on the blankets after they dried in the sun on the roof, and washed rice and made bean-paste soup and set the table for supper…. When he and his siblings took a spoonful of rice, Mom placed a piece of stewed beef on each person's spoon. They urged her to eat, but she insisted, "I'm not hungry."

The novel pretty much pulls out all the stops on Momidolatry, including a culminating scene with Michelangelo's Pietà. But it's more than that: it is also the story of one particular family with its own history spread out and picked over in absorbing detail.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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