Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mom, was the finalist of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. The judges were Chang-rae Lee, Razia Iqbal and Vikas Swarup. Though this was Shin’s first novel translated into English, she has written six novels, as well as short story collections and non-fiction in Korean. Her novels are exceedingly popular in South Korea.
In a book review for The Washington Post, Art Taylor states that Shin’s novel is not a mystery of a missing woman, “Rather than a briskly moving investigation into a woman’s disappearance, Please Look After Mom gazes moodily backward and inward. It offers reflective meditations on motherhood and a ruminative quest to confront mysteries more abstract than figuring out where Park So-nyo went.”
From a Crowded Train Platform in Seoul to an Art Museum in Rome
From the first page revelation, “It’s been one week since Mom went missing” until the end of the final chapter when daughter Chi-hon visits Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome, the book changes its location from city life to country life in South Korea and finishes up in Italy. Also, the narrators, of one chapter to the next, take turns from one family member to another. All these variations stand out to highlight the unexpected chaos surrounding the disappearance of Mom in Seoul train station. Soon after she goes missing, regret and guilt overwhelms her husband and grown children.
Universally, Moms are Often Taken for Granted
What is most remarkable about the character of Mom is that she stands for moms around the world, not as a stereotype, but as a work-yourself-to-the-bone, good-hearted, old-world mother who did her best as she brought up her children with an emotionally absent husband. Her daughter remembers her in a stream of consciousness dialog, “As she waited for her family to arrive your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride [towards you and your siblings] when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances. . .” The daughter hangs her head as she begins for the first time to perceive her Mom’s existence as an individual, who she has taken for granted.
In turn, the oldest son lashes out at his wife, “We searched everywhere. what can we do when even the police can’t find her?” as he continues to find blame because of his bottled up guilt. In addition, the dad in the novel begins to face how badly he had treated his wife. He leaves Seoul and returns to his empty country house, and berates himself by saying, “Before she went missing, you spent your days without thinking about her. When you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something, or to blame her or ignore her.”
Interview with Kyung-Sook Shin by Joshua Barnes
In the online magazine, Samsonian Way, editor Joshua Barnes interviews Kyung-Sook Shin. He says, “Park-so Nyo, the mother of the novel, is traditionally Korean, yet judging by international sales, she is quite relatable to English-speaking audiences. Why do you think this cross-cultural connection is so easily made?”
Shin replies, “Even though each country has different cultural backgrounds and social traditions, the word “Mom” can evoke universal emotional responses. Children’s attitudes toward Mom and their tendency to forget her are similar all around the world.” Shin goes on to explain that, “My focus in the novel was on making people think about why their societies have lost their moms. In the novel, the family has lost their mother, but even before they lost her, they had already forgotten her.”
Personally, when I read this I could see my Japanese mother-in-law in Shin’s main character because as a widow she worked so hard at her menial job, that the tips of her fingers were often chapped with deep cuts, yet she always tried her best and did not complain. Congratulations to Shin for being the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize and the first South Korean to make the shortlist.