Mother knows best

Please look after mother

Kyung-Sook Shin
2012, pp 272

Kyung-Sook Shin’s 2011 Man Asia Literary Prize winning tear-jerker of a novel — Please Look After Mother — traces the life of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother to five grown up children. So-nyo suffers a stroke, and hence, is given to lapses in memory; while visiting her children in Seoul, she gets separated from her husband at the Seoul railway station. It is against this backdrop that the book begins — with each of her five children, and her husband, combing the streets of the South Korean capital in search of her, a woman who has remained “a constant, and often unacknowledged presence in all of their lives.”

The book is divided into sections, each of which focusing on each person’s introspection of their treatment of “Mom”, as So-nyo is mostly referred to in this book. Beginning with So-nyo’s career-driven daughter Chi-hon’s recounting of her mother, and her relationship with her, the book progresses to Hyong-chol, clearly Mom’s favourite, and to her unfaithful husband.

As the narration moves from first to third person, Shin manages to capture the heartbreaking, guilt-ridden grief that consumes each of the family members as they recount their understanding of their mother and their various interactions with her, all the while painting different strokes of a woman of many shades, many hopes, and of undying, unconditional love. Hyong-chol, the eldest of the children, makes a promise to himself to treat his mother better, once she is found, just as he remembers forgotten promises made to himself for his mother, “a woman who changed places with him in the night duty room to protect him from the draught”, that she would sleep in a warm room when she returned to visit him again in Seoul.

So-nyo’s husband, or ‘Father’, as the children call him, comes to realise the true worth of his wife; a wife who waited for him despite his wayward behaviour; a wife whose failing health he had chosen to ignore: “When you were ill, your wife put a hand on your forehead, rubbed your stomach and went to the pharmacy for medicine and made you mung-bean porridge, but when she wasn’t feeling well, you just told her to take some medicine.” However, it is Chi-hon’s voice that remains the most distinct throughout the novel, as she remembers her mother to be a woman who “strode through the sea of people in a way that would intimidate even the authoritative buildings looking on from above.” In stark contrast, however, the responses to the missing mother ads that Chi-hon, the writer of the family, had drafted and stuck all over the city walls, paint a picture of an “old woman walking very slowly, sometimes sitting on the floor or standing vacantly...”

People repeatedly come forth with sightings of a dishevelled woman, wearing blue plastic sandals that bite into her skin, roaming around the city and rummaging through restaurant bins. And yet, Park So-nyo remains well out of her family’s vision, only making brief appearances in reflective narratives that only increase the need to find her now; to make past wrongs right. In the end, as you wipe that final tear, you find yourself joining Chi-hon, as she whispers in prayer, “Please, please look after mother.”

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