A disoriented elderly woman is separated from her husband in a crowded Seoul subway station and disappears. Her grown children, distraught and guilt-ridden, scour the city for her, a search that awakens memories and ignites questions about who their mother really was beneath the humdrum surface of her life. This is the intriguing premise of Kyung-sook Shin’s novel Please Look After Mom, a huge bestseller in the writer’s native South Korea that is fast becoming an international sensation as well.
It is easy to see the source of this global popularity, for not only is Shin’s absorbing novel written with considerable grace and suspense, but she also has managed to tap into a universality: the inequitable relationship between a mother and her children. As the story unfolds, told from four different perspectives, we learn far more about this woman than her children, or even husband, will ever know. And we bear witness to the lifetime’s worth of sacrifices she has made for all of them, at the expense of her own happiness and sense of self.
Park So-nyo is a vestige of a fading time and place, an illiterate peasant who has lived her entire 69 years of frugal subsistence in the countryside. Everything has been for the sake of her children; without fail, she surrendered any personal need or desire for the good of the family. Seoul, where her children now live, is a foreign land, a maze of indistinguishable buildings filled with strangers. When she disappears, the children—none of whom initially bothered to meet her at the train station—spring into action, offering a reward for anyone who can help find their mother. There are occasional sightings, often in parts of the city where one of them once lived or worked, but their mother continues to elude them.
The eldest daughter, a writer, begins to remember peculiarities in her mother’s recent behavior, and for the first time acknowledges the old woman’s increasing health issues, including a doctor’s report that she has had a stroke. The eldest son remembers how his mother seemed to exist solely to ensure his success in life. Her husband, who was chronically unfaithful during their enduring marriage, begins to see his wife for the woman she is, rather than for what he might have hoped she would be. Finally, in a beautiful coda, the spirit of the woman herself reveals a rich emotional life she kept hidden with her customary self-effacement.
In much of the book, Shin employs an unconventional second-person narrative, a choice that brilliantly heightens the self-recrimination the characters come to bear. Elegantly translated by Chi-Young Kim, the novel retains a strong Korean feel, filled with beguiling particulars of a culture alien to most Western readers. And yet, it speaks to us through its shared humanity, underscoring collective truths that transcend nationality.