Thursday, February 9, 2017

REVIEW | Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Publication Year: 2008/2011 (translation)
Genre: Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: Man Asian Literary Prize (2011)
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Mark Bramhall, Samantha Quan, Janet Song and Bruce Turk

WHY?:  I don't remember where I heard about it but it made a big splash a few years ago, people liked it and the premise sounded interesting.

SYNOPSIS:  Set in modern day South Korea the book tells the story of a mother's disappearance using 4 different perspectives - daughter, son, father, mother.  Each narrator reflects on their relationship with and their feelings for mother while also sketching a picture of the woman's life.


The first thing to know is that this is not a thriller nor really a mystery though it is at times mysterious.  I think I was expecting this type of book and it was not that at all - it is a character study and a contemplation of what "mother" means  - what it means to the mother and to all those around her.  It is also a mild commentary on modern Korean life and the contrast that apparently still exists between rural and urban culture.  I found it very readable and interesting if a tad over-the-top at times.  

The book is told in 4 parts: from the eldest daughter's, eldest son's, husband's and then  finally Mom's perspective.  In each part they are reacting to the loss of the matriarch of the family, quite literally.  On a trip from their home into the city to visit their children, Mom fails to follow her husband onto a train in a busy subway station and then is never seen again.  The book starts right after this happens with the eldest daughter's perspective and then moves further away in time from Mom's disappearance as the book goes on and the perspective changes.

In this way, from multiple perspectives, the life of Mother is revealed.  The first and last section are interestingly and somewhat confusingly told in 2nd person (for example "you hand out flyers with your brother and worry...").  I think this is to place the reader into the role of having lost your Mother in such a way.  Feeling frantic and bewildered and regretful about harsh words from the past and how you took Mom for granted.  It is likely a universal experience for children, especially if they have chosen a life quite different from their parents which is the case here.  I think this may have been my first time reading a book told using 2nd person and it was a little awkward and at times confusing but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book or keep me from understanding.
Mom and Dad raised their family in a small rural village, where there is still a lot of manual labor, poverty and tradition.  All the children have moved to Seoul and have modern jobs and lives.  We get the impression, as the tale is told, that Mom is mostly happy that her children have a more comfortable and free life than she did but it doesn't stop their being disappointments, conflicts and misunderstandings.  And guilt. LOTS of guilt now that Mom is gone.

It's a neat way to tell the story of someone's life - from different perspectives, after they are gone.  Mom is perhaps a little too much of a super woman as she is portrayed but could part of that because her children and husband are exaggerating her goodness out of guilt and loss?  Are they reliable narrators?  Regardless, her life is so interesting as is the exploration of a changing, modernizing Korea. Not just interesting but really readable and emotionally engaging as well!

I listened to the audio and that worked well.  I do have to say that the second person sections, particularly the last section were a tad confusing at times and I don't know whether that might have been easier (or harder) in print.  It wasn't enough of a distraction for me to not really enjoy the audio and the readers. 

FINAL VERDICT:  A thoughtful and emotional book about family, particularly a mother's life and role, set in a fascinating modern-day South Korea.  3.5 out of 5 stars!

Other Opinions Are Available: NPR* | Danny Yee's Book Reviews

* Maureen Corrigan was the reviewer here and she did NOT like this book.  It made a lot of people angry.  

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