The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-Chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mom was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are a few things a missing person’s family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mom. All you can do is file a missing-person report, search the area, ask passerby if they have seen anyone who looks like her. Your, younger brother , who owns an online clothing store, says he posted something about your mother’s disappearance, describing where she went missing; he uploaded her picture and asked people to contact the family if they’d seen her. You want to go look for her in places where you think she might be, but you know how she is,: she can’t go anywhere by herself in this city. Hyong-Chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush. as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t. You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom. (pages 3-4)
In Kung-Sook Shim’s English debut novel, Please Look After Mom, an elderly woman goes missing in the crowded city of Seoul. Mom was just behind her husband at a packed subway station when the subway doors closed leaving mom behind. By the time the father gets off at the next station and returns for his wife, she is gone. Mom and Dad live in the Korean countryside and could be considered country bumpkins, unsophisticated, and, in the mother’s case, illiterate. Their four children are successful, having been pushed by mom to become more than their peasant farmer parents. The story is told through the eyes of the oldest sister, a writer, the oldest son, the husband, and finally, the mother herself. They relate their mother’s story – married at age 17 to someone she did not know, working a farm, raising four children with a reluctant partner, cooking, cleaning, just getting through the days.
As the story unfolds we learn more about Mom, her illiteracy, her struggles with health, her hidden desires, her hidden life. That is the good part of the story. This is a novel about guilt and apology and I felt that part of the novel became a little repetitive. I didn’t know if this was due to cultural differences between America and South Korea. The novel is a best seller in Korea and has been published in 20 different countries so there is obviously something there that resonates with people’s experiences and emotions. Contrary to what you might think, this is not a story about what happened to mom. This is a look inward into a person taken for granted by those around her, a provider of food and nurturing, a pusher, a believer, someone who perseveres against a myriad of obstacles.
I didn’t necessarily like this book – I didn’t enjoy the guilt and angst of the children, and I thought the husband was a tad overdone – his epiphany was a little too much, a little too late. And I found it difficult to understand how the mother stayed so hidden from her family (again, I didn’t know if this was a cultural difference). However, the best part of the book was the part that was in the mother’s voice as she wandered the streets of Seoul. That section was worth waiting for – lyrical, haunting, evocative – spare in tone. I only wish the rest of the book measured up to that section.