Korean novelist Kyung-shook Shin's novel "Please Look After Mom" is the haunting story of a family's discovery of the mother they thought they knew after she vanishes from a crowded train platform in Korea's Seoul Station. The author reads at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
We may know her favorite color, or flower, or meal. But how well do sons and daughters, even when grown, really understand what motivates their mothers?
“Please Look After Mom” (Knopf, 237 pp., $24.95) is a suspenseful, haunting, achingly lovely novel about the hidden lives, wishes, struggles and dreams of those we think we know best. It’s told from the perspectives of the elder son, elder daughter and the husband of Park So-nyo, an elderly farm wife who vanishes on a crowded train platform in Korea’s Seoul Station while en route to visit family.
When we hear from So-nyo herself later in the book, it’s startling when she comes suddenly into focus. We learn she has a sense of humor. We learn who she loves and how she loves. We learn that everyone has a saga within them.
Korean best-selling author Kyung-sook Shin’s deft and frequent use of second person lends this story an instant intimacy. The novel, translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim, opens one week after So-nyo’s disappearance and in the anguished voice of her elder daughter, whose mind races to string together bits and snatches of memory into clues to find Mom.
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“Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers. Until last fall, you thought you knew your mom well — what Mom liked, what you had to do to appease her when she was angry, what she wanted to hear … But last fall, your belief that you knew her was shattered. You went for a visit without announcing it beforehand, and you discovered that you had become a guest.”
There are few ways to describe this story that don’t involve the word “devastating.” Seemingly small details explode into larger meaning at a pace that takes one’s breath away. The depth of each character’s guilt and regret over Mom’s absence — and what they wish they’d said and done differently — is palpable.
The story deftly juxtaposes images of modern Korea with wartime Korea, of city living with country life, of ultra-processed ramen with the crumbly dust of freshly dug potatoes, of Mom lugging heavy jars of homemade pickles and elixirs on the train ride from her country house to nourish her children in the big city. As the family grapples with its newfound understanding of the woman they thought they knew, we’re given a window onto the culture and customs of Korea, its food, festivals, traditions and family dynamics.
This book is not for those who crave easy resolution; just like family, it prompts worry, and consternation, and guilt, and heartbreak, and tears — sometimes even despair. Shin’s style of writing makes it simple for readers to transpose their own families into such a crushing scenario, and the onslaught of emotion that the narrative evokes is strangely cathartic. But, just like family, this novel also delivers ultimate gifts: moments of gorgeous lucidity, love that knows no depth, beauty in the details of many long-held memories, like this one from Mom about her eldest son:
“When I first put shoes on you, I was really excited. When you toddled over to me, I laughed so much; even if someone had spilled out a heap of gold and silver jewels in front of me, I wouldn’t have laughed like that. And how do you think I felt when I sent you to school? When I pinned your name tag and a handkerchief to your chest, I felt so grown up. How can I compare the happiness I got watching your legs get thicker with anything else? Every day, I sang, Grow and grow, my baby. And then, one day, you were bigger than me.”