Kyung-Sook Shin won the Man Asian Prize with Please Look After Mother, her sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It was also a huge commercial success in her native South Korea. The conceit is a fairly simple one, though beautifully executed: on the way to visit her children in Seoul, So-nyo, is separated from her husband when he boards a crowded train and she does not. The story of the subsequent search for her is told from the shifting perspectives of family members as they re-evaluate their understanding of their mother now that she is missing.
Shin begins adventurously in the second person from the point of view the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, a writer whom we can only imagine bears some resemblance to the author. We soon discover that the search the family will undertake for their mother is as much an internal one of memories as it is an external one of handing out fliers:
“Until last autumn you thought you knew your mother well – what she liked, what you had to do to appease her when she was angry, what she wanted to hear.”
It is quickly clear, as they attempt to put together a flier, that So-nyo is largely unknown to her family. Even the year the children thought she was born is not the true one as their father reveals (“This is the first time you’ve heard this.”). They have no up-to-date photograph. As Chi-hon remembers her mother, it is frequently a story of not knowing:
“When was it you realised that Mother didn’t know how to read?”
And more recently:
“Mother got headaches? So severe that she couldn’t even cry?…You could no longer say you knew mother.”
This first part, tracing the estrangement between mother and daughter, already makes for an excellent novel, but Shin goes on to provide the eldest brother, Hyong-chol’s, story in the second part, before the father’s narrative in part three. Each section takes us further back and, ironically, as we develop a clearer understanding of So-nyo, we increasingly see how she has been marginalised by her husband and family even as she has sacrificed herself for them. Her life has been one of hardship and difficulty:
“Now you probably can’t even imagine it, but in those days we were always worried we would run out of food. We were all like that. The most important thing was eating and surviving.”
The narratives are therefore often characterised by guilt and regret. Her husband, for example, recalls his refusal to talk about his brother’s death:
“Now you realise how cowardly you were. You lived your entire life heaping all your pain onto your wife. Kyun was your brother, yet your wife was the one who needed to be consoled.”
In the final section Shin gives us So-nyo’s own voice, in a way that may not please all readers, but which allows narrative closure and provides the necessary completion of her portrait. It would have been ironic if, in a novel about a woman who is ignored, the reader also did not hear her.
Though it may seem sentimental in summary, and it certainly has a mass appeal that makes it easy to see why the novel has been a best-seller, I found it genuinely moving. It charts that journey from childhood, when we feel we know our parents completely, through our own development into adults, when we often, like So-nyo’s children, give them little thought, to the often belated realisation that there may be areas of their life, external and internal, we are completely ignorant of.