Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

The story begins, “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” What follows are narratives of or by each of the family members: two daughters, eldest son (there's a younger son who isn't given a voice), husband, and one other voice, beginning with the daughter who is a writer. Each narration covers the search efforts for Mom, and also reveals history between that narrator and Mom, showing more and more about this family, and also explaining how it is possible that Mom could go missing. It is both a winding and unwinding tale of modern Korean life, the delicate and sometimes disturbing intricacies in the relationships of this family, and of a mother's love.

At times, the persistent use of second person felt problematic, especially toward the end. Its use makes sense because of its inherent accusatory tone, and also because on the surface it avoids the “I” narrator, which could be perceived as a more egocentric presentation of character. But in most instances, second person here is easily interchanged with first person.

SPOILER ALERT: THIS PARAGRAPH ADDRESSES CONCERNS IN THE LAST TWO CHAPTERS. I appreciated finally giving Mom a voice at the end of this book, as she roams ghostlike to check in on her family members and the house she raised them in. It helped to draw a full circle of this family, and show the richness of her character, the honest selflessness and love she offered (suffered for) her children. I wish the book had ended there. The lengthy Epilogue is voiced again by the writer-daughter as she goes to Rome and, regarding Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” finds at last the spirit of her mother as she prays to the statue to “please look after Mom.” This section felt melodramatic to me in the way that much of Korean cinema and television can be over the top, bearing down on points already made, bleeding them for their last ounce of emotionalism in a much-beating-of-breath manner familiar to Korean drama. With its obvious Christian icons, it also felt somewhat pasted in, or too easy a resolution. Arguing that restraint expresses more than exposure, like modesty versus porn, I would have preferred no Epilogue.

But this family is richly characterized, its dynamic pace and its members unforgettable, the smallest details of their everyday lives mined to express the depth of the complexity, contradiction and mystery with which families evolve.

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