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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