Book Review: Please Look After Mom

Shin Kyung-sook’s Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel Please Look After Mom explores family dynamics rooted, occasionally, in family melodrama, and the search for Mom after she goes missing at the busy Seoul Station subway stop becomes the spark that has each family member exploring their memories and their relationship with Mom.

I mentioned “rooted in family melodrama” – if you’ve watched K-dramas, you’ve met these family members – the self-sacrificing mother; the self-indulgent, misogynist father; the dutiful elder son; the eldest daughter, on whom expectations are placed; and the youngest daughter, indulged, perhaps, as the baby of the family. We’ve seen the rural parents who stand in contrast to their now city-dwelling children, too busy to return to the family home, so that the parents must come to the city to see them. We’ve seen these children, working hard to be successful, neglecting their parents not particularly out of any idea of being bad people, just simply because they do not have time. There are not enough hours in the day, and not enough space in their busy lives to carve out for a Mom – or for an idea of “Mom” – that they have, perhaps, outgrown.

Much has been made of the stylistic choices of Shin’s novel, with different characters being written in first, second, or third person – these choices colour the relationship of the reader with each character. The eldest daughter’s narrative, for example, which opens the novel, is written in the second person, immediately pulling us into the action of the book (such as it is, with its spare plot line). But it also makes that narrative very personal, allowing the reader to immediately form a connection with the character and the story she opens for us. We, as readers, become immediately connected to Mom and her disappearance, as if Mom is our mom, too.

The novel is fascinating, too, in its exploration of personal identity – particularly in the case of Mom. Telling the story from the viewpoint of different family members allows us to see that their relationships to Mom colour their view of who she is, something that rings so very, very true. A child will only know the things about a mother that reflect that child/parent relationship, and may be totally oblivious to things that happen between husband and wife, as well as to the parts of their mother’s life that are more about her life as a woman – in fact, as children, we rarely think of our mothers as women first, as having dreams and goals and identity – and even secrets – separate from that of “mother”. Mom is no exception, though with each family member’s story – and, most importantly, from Mom’s own appearance in the novel – we get little glimpses into Mom that gradually build up a picture of her that goes beyond the simple idea of “mother”.

I will admit, one of the things about Shin’s novel that stuck with me was the importance of food – what I’ve learned about Korea and food reminds me very much of my experience living in France, where food is connected to culture, where there is an emphasis on local traditions, on seasonal and local ingredients. Food has such a central place in both cultures, and that is, I think, reflected in Shin’s novel. Mom’s love for her eldest son is symbolized by the ramen she hides away and makes only for him when he returns home late at night after studying. The scariest thing, for Mom, “was when there was nothing left in the rice jar.” And happiness, for her husband, was a full stomach after sharing a meal of rice and fish.

Food also serves to represent Mom’s life of sacrifice. Eldest daughter Chi-hon describes Mom’s house as a factory, where Mom “prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round.” Sesame oil, sesame seeds, perilla seeds, plum juice, fermented clams – Mom made it all, and sent her children home with jars of it.

And despite all that, it’s only much later that Mom’s daughters wonder if she actually enjoyed any of that – if she actually enjoyed being in the kitchen. As Chi-hon puts it: “You never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom.” Mom’s response to this, when Chi-hon finally thinks to ask her, is to first say that it wasn’t about liking or disliking, she just cooked because she had to, because in life we don’t get to only do the things we like. When pressed, though, Mom admits that she “broke jar lids several times,” to ease her frustration at having to do the one thing that there never seemed to be an end to: feeding other people. “When the kitchen felt like a prison,” she tells her daughter, “I…picked up the most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall.” What made it bearable, though, for Mom, was the feeling that she wanted nothing more in the world than to feed her children, to hear their spoons clattering in their bowls as they ate what she prepared for them, whether zucchini and bean paste soup, or a simple snack of boiled potatoes.

I will admit, the book’s occasional drift into the melodramatic was not particularly my cup of tea – the whole epilogue set in Vatican City, where Chi-hon buys a rosewood rosary that her mother had asked about before her disappearance, and her final moments in front of the Pietà were, for me, far too maudlin. Yes, the Pietà is the ultimate symbol of the sorrowful mother, but for me, a more moving and more representative expression of Mom’s sacrifice are the steamed buns she made for her children, on summer nights – nights with “stars pouring down from the sky,” when Mom would make tray after tray of steamed buns that her children gobbled up as quickly as she could steam them. Shin’s description of the children eating cold steamed buns with their outsides hardened by dew, that kind of attention to detail and her ability to capture those moments and emotions more than make up for any moments marred by cliché and sentimentality.

Courtesy of Random House Canada

Just the facts

  • Title: Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해)
  • Author: Shin Kyung-sook (신경숙)
  • Translator: Kim Chi-Young (김지영)
  • Publisher: Random House Canada
  • Year published: 2012

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