Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (3/5)

22 Jan

This book falls into the broad category of ‘books I’d never heard of until my book club picked them.’ I’m not sure this is one I would have read normally just because it sounds so sad! In reality, it wasn’t very happy but the style was so interesting that it drew me in. I was interested despite how sad the book made me.

Cover image via Goodreads

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Summary from Goodreads:

You will never think of your mother the same way after you read this book.

When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, and vanishes, their children are consumed with loud recriminations, and are awash in sorrow and guilt. As they argue over the “Missing” flyers they are posting throughout the city – how large of a reward to offer, the best way to phrase the text – they realize that none of them have a recent photograph of Mom. Soon a larger question emerges: do they really know the woman they called Mom?

Told by the alternating voices of Mom’s daughter, son, her husband and, in the shattering conclusion, by Mom herself, the novel pieces together, Rashomon-style, a life that appears ordinary but is anything but.

In my typical fashion, I did not read this summary before I read the book. I didn’t know the point of view was going to rotate like it did. I think I would have still been surprised by it even having read the summary because I didn’t suspect such drastic differences. The daughter’s section was written from second person point of view. As it was the first section and then came around again at the end, I have a lasting impression of much of the book being in the second person. This is so unusual in fiction that it threw me off.

Using a family with so many kids gave the author a chance to explore different reactions to grief. Chi-hon was manic in her searching and seemed about to give up her personal life and sacrifice her career to find her mother. Hyong-chol was diligently involved at first but seemed to resign himself to having lost his mother as time went on. The father and younger sister seemed to have the same reaction, which was a petrified shock that prevented them from doing almost anything to help find her, much to the frustration of the elder sister. I felt this was al realistic and I was glad we could see so many sides of grief.

Chi-hon was my favorite character. I could understand her mania in searching for her mother and it made sense to me that she would go to the extremes she went to and be affected the way she was because of the loss. Her second-person narration pushed me away at first, but it started to draw me in soon after and I really enjoyed it.

These characters were hard for me to relate to. I’ve been fortunate not to lose anyone major in my family and the loss of a parent isn’t something I could understand well. I’ve lost some more distant family members but the sentiment is not the same. This was part of why it was hard for me to connect with this book overall.

Kyung-Sook Shin
Image via Numero Cinq

I liked how we slowly learned more about mom and realized her dementia was severe. She seemed in denial herself but the vignettes that her husband and daughter share about her make it really obvious that she had been suffering from declining cognitive function for some time. I thought that was really well done by Shin because early on, you think ‘How could she get lost?’ but then later, you start thinking ‘How could they lose her?’ My perceptive of the blame took a dramatic shift.

I really hated the part mom narrated. It felt like a ghost watching over everything and it bothered me. I didn’t like jumping from character to character and I didn’t like not getting a solid answer about where mom was. I wish the younger sister had been given a part of the book instead and that section left out.

My mom and I work at the same company and we sit in the same office. I started seeing my mom very differently when I started working there. She has working relationships and friendships, she is a good boss, and she has her own stresses. It took this for me to start seeing my mom as someone who had a life outside of our house and who might experience things I knew nothing about. That can be hard to do. Clearly, the children in this book had trouble seeing their mom as anything other than a mother. Her life was focused on her children and they didn’t care for her as a person they way they could have.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not sure if the POV switches are more common in Korean literature than they are in English literature, but they threw me off a bit. However, it drew me into Chi-hon’s character and made me sympathize with her. The omniscient narrator during the mother’s part was even more jarring and I wish that had been left out. Shin was bold with her stylistic choices and I think some paid off more than others.

I liked the book but some stylistic choices threw me off. Three out of Five Stars.

This book satisfies the 2000-Present time period in my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin | forthenovellovers
Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin | The Book Stop
Please Look After Mother (2008) – Kyung-Sook Shin | A Novel Approach
Please Look After Mom | Willow Books


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