Please Look After Mom – Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom might be the first South-korean novel I have ever read – something I’ve wanted to right for a while and I certainly started off strong. This is a story told from several different points of view – we follow one character’s point of view for a while, and then we switch to a new – and as we change perspectives we learn things about the previous character from a different angle, we see more sides to the same events – seen from different eyes, and it’s such a clever way of telling a story. The characters are all part of the same family. The mother of a family goes missing. We know from the start that her health is deteriorating, but we don’t know exactly what is wrong until further into the narrative. The first part is seen through her daughter’s eyes, in the second person. The second part is seen through her son, then the third through her husband, and lastly through the mother herself. It takes a while to settle in every new “host” but once you do, it was surprisingly easy to “get comfortable” in that new pair of eyes.

This is a story about a family, about the things one takes for granted and the things we forget in our daily lives trying to get through the every day battles and challenges. It’s about motherhood, what comes with the territory, what you lose and what you gain, maybe also what makes a good mother and what that means for a person. I found the family exploration in this novel to be fantastic – the thing is that so many of the themes surrounding family that is touched upon in this novel are universal I think. Taking your mother for granted is something I think many of us can relate to, taking your parents for granted and taking it for granted that they will do certain things or that they will be certain people. One of my favourite parts was when one of the daughters comments on how, she never realised, that her mother wasn’t just “mom” but also a woman, she was once a girl, she wasn’t born “mom”. She didn’t have that role from the beginning, she was a different person before her family and her daughter had only realised this long into her adult years. That really stuck with me.

Towards the end there is definitely a bit of moral tones – take care of your mother, while you still can, that sort of thing. And I guess there’s a bit of that throughout, but although the moralling would normally put me off, it’s not out of place in the novel and it doesn’t need to be strong because the story allows for that on its own. If that makes sense. And while there’s talk about all the things the mother of the story sacrificed, and how she did so much, and how pitiful she was that no one paid her more attention – there’s also talk of her less admirable traits, and the things that did make her happy, basically there’s some balance in the portraying of this mother. She’s not portrayed as an angel, perfect in every way. Which is why this book is all the more powerful, I think.

And the book isn’t just about the mother either – as I said, it’s about family. Each character has his or her own struggles, his or her own problems to deal with and face, and the other members of the family can’t always see the other’s pain, busy trying to handle their own issues. And this novel is often about the things left unsaid – the things that exist but are never brought into the open. The things we wanted to do for another person but never had the time or the means for, the things we wish for ourselves but have never been able to get, the things we regret but don’t dwell on, our secrets, our dreams. Each character has his or her own baggage, each character has a complex web of emotions and memories, that the other’s can only see part of.

This book, as said, explores family themes that are universal – the dynamics in a family and all that that entails. But it also explores motherhood and being a woman, and just simply living, in South-Korea. Many of the things she does are very culture specific, like making kimchi and bean paste etc. to bring to her children every time she meets them. Her character is sewn into her context and for me experiencing this country and its culture through this book was another thing I really enjoyed.

Basically this was all round a fantastic book and I would highly recommend it to anyone!

Until next time, Happy Reading!

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