Kyung Sook Shin is one of Korea’s most well-known and popular contemporary female writers. With her latest book, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, recently released, I decided that it was about time I read her best selling novel Please Look After Mom (which has been waiting patiently on my bookshelf for 3 years!) It won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012.
An elderly couple come up from the countryside to Seoul to visit their children who all live in the city now. But for one reason or another, none of the children manage to get to Seoul Station to meet their parents and when the elderly couple try to get on a crowded subway train to make their own way to their son’s house, they get separated and Mom goes missing.
The rest of the story is written from the points of view of different family members as they reflect over their relationship with Mom. Her husband and children are filled with guilt and remorse over how they have neglected her and taken her for granted. And now, after she has done so much for them, they are powerless to do anything for her. They also realise that there are things about their own mother/wife that they don’t know. And so the question is raised – How well do we really know our own parents and loved ones?
I read this book easily in a couple of sittings and was pulled into the story with its emotional characters. It’s a sad story, so there are no laughs. At all. But if you like poignant stories full of angst, then this might be for you.
COMMENTS ON A CHANGING SOCIETY
The story shows the changing values of Korean society. As the country has become more economically developed and urbanised, all the children have moved away to Seoul preferring fast-paced city life to the countryside. Their lives in the city emphasise the gulf between the opportunities that they have enjoyed – such as a good education – compared to the limited choices their mother’s generation had.
Urbanisation has created more opportunities for women, which we see through the elder daughter who is a writer, and still single in her thirties. Her mother is illiterate and had to marry whilst still a teenager. But she worked hard to make sure that all her children got an education. The unfortunate irony is that she can’t even read the books that her own daughter writes. And although she can’t relate to her daughter’s life, Mom is still proud of her, though she has to have someone read her daughter’s books to her since she can’t read them for herself.
Gradually, Mom’s life is revealed to have been one of sacrifice for her family. Even if the family members don’t seem to appreciate anything she has done for them. Korean Confucianism valued women who sacrificed for their families. The mother in the story certainly reflects these values. (I recently went to Andong, the centre of Confucianism in Korea, where there were several monuments to ‘virtuous women’ who had given up their own lives and dedicated themselves to their husbands and families – read more about Andong here).
But there’s a sense in the book that with the changing times, women like Mom will soon no longer exist. As a western, female reader, I tried to understand her but I found myself getting frustrated with Mom’s stoic and rather passive acceptance of the bad behaviour of family members towards her- such as when her husband left her for another woman in summer and then came back months later in winter. Her reaction was to get up and without a word prepare something for him to eat. As if nothing had happened! I think it’s safe to say that those times have changed and it’s no wonder Mom has trouble relating to her daughters!
APPRECIATE YOUR LOVED ONES
The story didn’t make me cry, but I was moved. I enjoyed reading about the lives of the characters, even if they were pretty selfish. But I started to feel a bit worn down as I got towards the end of the book. It’s a heartbreaking situation, yes. And not surprisingly the family members are feeling hopelessly guilty as they reflect on Mom’s tough life and how they have neglected her. But still I would have given anything for just one moment in the story where I could have smiled at a family memory or even laughed out loud. Or even better, laughed and cried at the same time – life can be bitter sweet sometimes. But no, the mood remains sombre throughout.
But the story has a good and important message. We are invited to reflect on our own families and how we treat them. We should appreciate the people we love while they are still around and find out about them before it’s too late.