Book review – “Please Look After Mother” by Kyung-Sook Shin

This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a book from Asia. I hadn’t realised the coincidence, that, of course, Mother’s Day is in March in the UK, so it was an even more appropriate choice than I planned! If you were looking for some sentimental celebration of the joys of maternal love, this was not it, however. It was, in its own way, though, a celebration of mothering.

Please Look After MotherThe premise of the story is very simple: So-nyo is a wife and mother to five children, all of whom are now grown-up and living their lives in different parts of the country (South Korea). So-nyo lives a very simple fairly rural life with her husband at the family home, where there are many privations. The place is almost a throwback to a bygone era. So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong-chol, lives in Seoul with his wife and family and it is while his parents are on their way to visit him (to celebrate the father’s birthday) that his mother goes missing; she was holding her husband’s hand on the busy underground station platform one moment, then she seemed to slip from his grasp and just disappeared into the crowd.

We meet Song-nyo’s family one week after the disappearance. They are gathered at Hyong-chol’s house, trying frantically to come up with a strategy to find their missing mother. Police searches have so far turned up nothing and although there have been a couple of random sightings, when one or other of the siblings goes to investigate, they find the trail has gone cold. There is tension in the group, all of them, in their anxiety blaming the other for some oversight that has led to their mother’s disappearance. The following chapters are told from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, there is Chi-hon, the third of the five children, a successful novelist and So-nyo’s eldest daughter. Chi-hon is the first of the family members to begin to reflect on how she has taken her mother for granted all her life (as they all have) and is only just now realising this, now that mother has gone. She tries to recall when it was that she discovered her mother could not read, a fact she managed to conceal from the world because she was so ashamed.

Through Hyon-chol’s recollections we learn of how ambitious So-nyo was for her children and of how much she sacrificed for them, particularly her eldest son, traditionally the most prized child according to her culture, a fact resented by the others, particularly Chi-hon, who never understood it fully.

There is also the reflection and sense of regret from So-nyo’s husband, who, for a time, left his wife for another woman, but who came back eventually, though on somewhat different terms. Returning to the home they shared after leaving Seoul, some weeks after his wife’s disappearance, he is visited by a stranger who runs a nearby orphanage, and who is looking for So-nyo, the woman who was a frequent visitor to the home, who gave her time and money generously to the orphanage. So-nyo’s husband realises he barely knew the woman he was married to.

I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that So-nyo herself makes appearances in the novel, particularly in the later stages. She narrates a chapter about her younger daughter, now a woman married with three young children, a bright girl who went to college, but who is now a stay-at-home mother, much like So-nyo, and yet not like So-nyo at all. So-nyo regrets how she did not give her youngest daughter the support and encouragement she deserved, either when she was a young girl or when she became a mother herself.

Through their regrets and reflections we learn about So-nyo, about her commitment to the culture of her ancestors and of how for her children she was the only bridge to that past, which is now, it would seem, gone. As they consider that they may well have lost their mother forever, each of the main characters goes on their own journey, not just rethinking their attitude to their mother, realising the part she has played in their lives, but also learning much about themselves in the process.

This book was at times very difficult for me as it is only a few months since I lost my own mother. The first Mothering Sunday without her did not affect me too much as I was somewhat distracted by the lockdown that had only just been implemented, but it would have been her 77th birthday last Easter Monday, while this book was still fresh in my mind, and that was quite hard. I spent most of the day gardening, something she would have appreciated, I think. In the last few months, rather like the characters in this book, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what my mother did for me. Perhaps we only truly grow up when we lose our parents.

Not the easiest read, but a powerful one and certainly one of the most unusual books I have read in a while.

Recommended.

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Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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