Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Resurrecting the Sacrifices of Modernity: Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After Mother

by Michael Tsang


Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mother, Vintage Books, 2012. 274 pgs.

Earlier this year, Please Look After Mother became the first South Korean book to win the Man Asian Literary Prize, and its author, Shin Kyung-sook, the first female winner. I rejoice at both these milestones and at the novel's success. For me, Mother represents what good Asian literature is all about: drawing global readers into Asian terrains and letting them experience the complexities of its societies.

In Please Look After Mother, with the translation of Kim Chi-young (one of Korea's best English translators), Shin asks us to reflect on what South Korea has thrown away in pursuit of techno-savvy, cosmopolitan modernity. Her question has certainly captured something in the mood of contemporary South Korea—the novel has sold over two million copies—but international readers will also find similar fault lines between past and present in their own societies.

The book succeeds in connecting all of its conflicts through one central character: Park So-nyo, or Mother, as she is called throughout the novel. The story starts with her disappearance from Seoul Station, where she and her husband have just arrived from the country. The couple becomes separated after Mother fails to follow her husband onto a subway train, an event which sparks a family search for her whereabouts. What follows is a series of confessions by the members of her family. In turn, her busy and detached elder daughter, mediocre eldest son and uncaring husband all recount their memories of Mother and pour out their regret over their negligence towards her. But while throughout the novel the reader is tempted to read Mother as a martyr-like figure, she gets to speak in the last chapter, and we read her own confessions and emotions as she says goodbye—on the verge of leaving the world for good—to each of her dear ones.

Because the novel centres on Mother but disperses its narrative to other characters, its structure enables a multi-layered sociological examination of modern-day South Korea. Tensions are developed along the fault lines of generational difference, uneven development between city and country, patriarchal gender relationships and the clash between traditional beliefs and modern values, to name just a few. The narrative structure also allows readers to compare the accounts of different characters and delve into their often contradictory psychologies. For example, we see how Mother entrusts her eldest son with both the Confucian authority of the family and all the accompanying expectations. But when he takes up what is at best regarded as a mediocre job, she blames herself for failing to provide him with a better education. Other siblings are, of course, jealous of the attention given to their eldest brother, but when each looks back on their own childhood, they all realise that they too have embodied a fraction of Mother's wishes.

The family's situation is characterised by negligence, secrets and poor communication. While her children are too busy with their lives in Seoul to notice that Mother has had a stroke or know that she was coming to the city for Chuseok, a traditional Korean festival of family reunion, we also learn that she has been hiding her health problems from them. And although everybody—including her emasculated husband, who occasionally runs away from his wife—regrets their negligence of Mother, none of them know that she has had a secret (and perhaps romantic) relationship with a "life-long friend" and has developed her own "career" funding and helping out at an orphanage.

In the novel, family ignorance and misunderstandings are the price of progress; contempt for the old and severed communication with the past the result of our hopping on the high-speed train to modernity. Shin is careful, however, to point out that the change to modernity itself is not necessarily a social bad, but that it is instead our disregard for the hands that fed us and our refusal to join with them and help them move forward that is our true sin.

We ought not to forget that Mother wants her and her family to transcend her own plight, and she expresses this most strongly on matters of education. Education recurs throughout the novel as a symbol of modernity, a road to freedom and an escape from poverty. Describing her own illiteracy as a "darkness, with no light, [in] my entire life," Mother can only lie about her bad eyesight and ask the orphanage staff to read her the novels written by her eldest daughter. In this context, her name, So-nyo, which means "young girl," is full of meaning. Although an aging woman, she is in many ways unworldly and innocent, tied to her role of mother in a rural household and having little experience of contemporary, urban life. She also longs to be a girl again, if only for the opportunity to attend school and learn. She projects this thirst for education onto the orphanage and her own children, and she finds immense satisfaction when she can afford to send her youngest daughter to kindergarten. After much practice, Mother learns to write out her youngest daughter's name and takes pride in "the first letters [she] ever wrote."

This same daughter comes to embody Mother's hope for freedom and salvation, especially because she is the only one of her children who takes Mother out—to theatres, bookshops, royal tombs or even public protests in Seoul. As Mother says at one point, "Since you were the only child who was free from poverty, all I wanted was for you to be free from everything. And with that freedom, you often showed me another world, so I wanted you to be even freer." The daughter fulfils Mother's wish to be young, to live the life that was built upon her own perseverance and sacrifice (and by extension that of all mothers, especially those of her generation). Shin does more than remind us that the education many of us take for granted is often the fruit of our parents' struggles; she also suggests that younger generations should show elder generations the modern world and allow them to rightly enjoy the harvest of their work.

Few books move me to tears, but this novel had me crying every ten pages or so. For me, Please Look After Mother is not merely heartrending but also reminds me of the juxtaposed realities I encounter in my own life: between living in cosmopolitan and modern Hong Kong, where women in general have good employment opportunities, and having a Korean aunt who behaves exactly like Mother. While reading the novel, I was shocked to realise that there are so many Mothers among my aunt's Korean community in Hong Kong, obsessed with the symbolic figure of the eldest son and sacrificing everything for their children. I was moved because the novel's observations are all too true, too tangible, so much so that I cannot maintain a distance from them. And this is why I think the book's victory at the Man Asian Literary Prize is significant. Shin's depiction of South Korea does not just feel like a verisimilitude,  it is plain actuality. Even if readers do not have a Korean aunt or know anything about South Korea other than "Gangnam Style" and Samsung, they will be drawn into the book and experience the psychological and material dilemmas facing an Asian society today.

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