Friday, June 17, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin — 256 pgs

Please Look After MomIn this somber and heartbreaking novel, an older woman, mother to four children and three grandchildren, goes missing after she fails to follow her husband onto a train in a crowded station. Though her children immediately take to the streets to hand out flyers offering a reward for information, time passes with no news or plausible leads. Park So-nyo is out there somewhere, lost and confused as each child reflects on their life with a mother who would do anything and sacrifice all for each of them and her husband. As the chapters move forward, an intimate picture or Park So-nyo is revealed: a hardworking farm woman living in the rocky hills of Korea, cooking and cleaning and farming the land year after unchanging year, giving her children the kind of love and support that is often taken for granted. When the grown children begin to talk amongst themselves and their father, it’s revealed that Mother had been acting strangely even months before her disappearance, succumbing to violent headaches that sometimes left her unconscious and other times forgetful. Now it’s up to the children and their father to bring Park So-nyo back home, despite the extended length of time she’s been missing, for they all wish to finally tell her they love her and that her seemingly inconsequential life has meaning to each of them. Spare and unflinching, Please Look After Mom is a story with immense emotional weight and heft, and will leave its readers hungering for a resolution to the dilemma of a missing woman, gone before her time, and the pain it sparks in the family that still searches for her.

One of the things that was different about this book was the fact that three of the four sections, which alternated in their viewpoints, were written in the first person. Although this doesn’t always work, what happened here was that the use of first person actually intensified the urgency and alienation of each of these characters from their mother. It was a risky thing to attempt, but because it was employed successfully, it elevated the narrative into a thing of beauty and, at times, terror.

The story in this book was penetrating, yet somehow reserved with secrets popping out of the text like landmines. Each section is a narration from a different character, whose relationship with Park So-nyo varies in strength and passion, and who comes to realize that the loss of their mother is a fundamental source of agony for so many reasons. The eldest daughter is the first section to be narrated, and as she rediscovers her mother through long forgotten or discarded memories, she begins to see that all the sacrifices that her mother made for her went unappreciated. Park So-nyo’s life has been filled with melancholy and longing, and it’s only after she is gone that her daughter sadly begins to realize this. Throughout the book, Park So-nyo is brought into clear focus and then curiously blurred away again.

The sections that are told from the point of view of Hyong-chol, the oldest son and favored child, revel in the memories of his complicity in her special coddling of him, and as he treks all over town following one bad lead after another, his heart is breaking. It becomes evident as the story progresses that none of the children, and even her husband, ever really knew what kind of woman she was; What her thoughts and desires might be, or why she consistently put her family before her in every matter. As strange reports of sightings begin to come in about an injured woman wandering alone, both the readers and the characters come to share a feeling of discomfiture at the implications of this news. Even the children’s father comes to realize that she was a stranger to him, and his ambivalent and neglectful treatment of her rear up in his heart to cripple him once his wife is not returned to him promptly.

Park So-nyo begins to emerge as a hard-scrabbling farm woman who is careful with money and very industrious, laboring long and hard in her fields, rice paddy and kitchen, but for whom sacrifices are not rare. What’s saddest about all this is her family’s complete lack of concern for the woman who cares for all their ills and who ignores her own pain to give them a better and more successful life. Park So-nyo is essentially unappreciated, and by the time she has gone missing, it’s only regret and heartache that she inspires in her children and husband, who are now desperate to tell her how important she is to them. It’s a heartbreaking and poignant tale that speaks eloquently of regret and missed opportunities, of mistreatment and the kind of ignorance of the heart that can begin to take place so easily in day-to-day life. These are relationships that survived on indifference, silence and disregard. The last chapters of the book are the most heartrending, as Park So-nyo narrates them herself and expounds on the lives of her children and husband and how she feels about each of them individually.

This was a very powerfully written yet quiet book that reverberated with the kinds of emotions that left me feeling withered and saddened. There are no easy answers and things don’t tie up nicely in the end. At times it was frustrating to read about how these ancillary characters cared so little for Park So-nyo while she was with them and how condescending and cruel they could be to her at times. It was a book that packed a huge emotional punch and left me feeling saddened, yet also a bit more heart-wise. It made me consider the error of leaving things unsaid and emotions left unexplored, and pulled me into the story of a broken and divided family whose only wish was for their mother to return. An entrancing read, highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

27 comments:

Amy said...

I've heard quite a bit about this book and though it isn't something I would normally pick up I am rather intrigued and am considering it. Thanks for this great review.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I can see how it would have a dramatic emotional effect. I am adding this to my move into the adult genre list. I have 2 books right now that are not YA that I am chewing on right now.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

The reviews I have seen so far lead me to believe this is not for me! But as usual, you give a wonderfully insightful review that helps me decide!

Suzanne said...

I've heard many good things about this book but it sounds like one I might need to be in the right "mood" to read.

Very nice review.

Steph said...

I am so glad you liked this one! When it came across my desk while I was looking through ARCs at BookPage, I was moved after reading just the first few pages and insisted that we cover it. It seemed so unique and unlike most books published today, and in that sense it was refreshing. But it was also obviously a very powerful read that I wasn't sure most readers would find on their own... I am so glad you did!

Sandy Nawrot said...

This sounds extremely insightful. So often we take people for granted until they are gone. You've done a wonderful job summarizing all the emotions involved in reading this.

P.S. Five days until we come home!

Darlene said...

Wow, this sounds like a really emotional book. I've never heard of it but your review has definitely sparked my interest.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, this sounds like it really made an impact on you! I love books like this, even though they make me feel drained after I read them.

Jenners said...

Wow! This sounds like it could be heart-breaking. Part of me just wishes she got fed up and left to find her own happiness. Of course, I doubt that is true. Women who sacrifice themselves like this would never do that ... although they should.

I like how you mention that it speaks to the importance of appreciating those we love and letting them know before it is too late.

Wonderful review of what sounds like a powerful and emotional novel. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

celawerdblog said...

Very detailed review. Not usually my genera preference but I might look into it.

Suko said...

I love your in-depth reviews, Zibilee. They allow me to imagine both plot and characters, and I can determine if a book is for me. I do think I'd really enjoy this book. I like the idea of multiple perspectives told in the first person.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Oh, my goodness. This sounds like one that would make me cry (actually, bawl). To lose your wife or mother in a crowd and search for her? How absolutely emotionally devastating, it hurts even to think about it.

Marie said...

Wow, sounds very powerful and moving. I'm going to keep an eye out for it!

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I'm going to read this one...it sounds like a book that focuses on appreciating what we have when we have it, instead of wishing we had something different...reminds me of The Good Earth.

Aths said...

I'm usually hesitant to read any "mom" books. They always make me cry and want to go home to mine. But everyone's been talking about this that I want to give it a try.

Aarti said...

Wow, this sounds like a really, really intense and sombre read. I don't know if I could handle it. Whenever I see situations like the one described, I always start thinking about *my* parents needing looking after and that makes me so frightened and upset I tend not to go further down that path.

TheBookGirl said...

Just reading your excellent review made me so sad for this woman...I'm not sure I could get through this without being overwhelmed by it, but the fact that you liked it so much makes me want to try. I will think about this one a bit more.

Amy said...

You've been reading some emotionally powerful deeply sad books recently. This is a fantastic review, Heather. Thank you :o)

I am intrigued by the author's use of the first person and I love how you describe the impact it has on the story. It sounds like Park So-nyo, like many wives and mothers, was taken for granted and certainly not shown appreciation for all that she did for her family. At least they're humble enought to see that now, although it's a shame that it might be too late to rectify their mistakes. By using the first person view point, it sounds as if Kyung-sook Shin really gets across to us why her children want to tell Park how much they love her and what her life means to them.

The story is so real in many ways and I think after reading it, I wouldn't be able to help but look at my life from a different perspective and scrutinize my behavior towards the people closst to me, the people I love. This sounds like a very worthwhile although emotionally exhausting book! I hope you took a break from any intense, complex reading when you finished this book!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I would love this story. In fact the premise is so lovely. We only see the essence and importance of something in its absence.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

This looks so good but so heartbreaking. I've heard nothing but wonderful things about it. Thank you for the review.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Your reviews always make me want to read the books, Heather! This one is no different. I'm glad I have the book so I can try to read it sooner than later. :)

nomadreader said...

I really liked this one too! It was so haunting, and it read like a page-turner for me. I'm hoping more of this author's work gets translated into English.

Vasilly said...

H, what a wonderful review. I am so glad you felt the same way about this book as I did.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds like a tough, but rewarding read. Your review will cause me to add it to the wish-list :)

Geosi said...

Oh Mine, I love the sound of this story and I may want to be on the look out. Thanks.

Jenny said...

I actually bought this book but never read it. I wonder if it would be too close to home for me because I'm part Korean and there are aspects of the culture that frustrate me. On the other hand I might find it really emotional too. We shall see I guess. Great review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

ooh, this sounds very emotion-provoking! (totally made up that hyphenated adjective there :) )

Even though this left you with a positive beat (because of the lingering thoughts you wrestled with), I don't think I could read it. A friend from high school disappeared under similar circumstances, and I'd find it too hard.

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