Book review: Please look after mother

“Please Look After Mother” is a sad book through and through, with every page steeped with such immense sorrow that even myself, a self-professed unemotional reader, would declare this translated novel by South Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook an absolute tear-jerker.

This is a story about a mother who one day disappeared at a train station and how her family coped with the loss. It is so touching that my best advice when reading it would be to have packets of tissues on hand.

“When you first heard Mother had gone missing, you angrily asked why nobody from your large family went to pick her and Father up at Seoul Station.

‘And where were you?’

Me? You clammed up. You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days. You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.”

At times, the novel felt like a long eulogy documenting the loss of Mother, who despite being the anchor of the family was taken for granted and always ended up as one of her children’s lowest priorities.

Through the multiple narratives of each family member, the author skillfully paints a vivid picture of Mother.

“With the setting sun warming your back, you gazed down at Mother’s face cradled on your lap as if it were the first time you were seeing it. Mother got headaches? So severe that she couldn’t even cry?… You stared at the dark sunspots on the back of her hand, saturated with a lifetime of labour. You could no longer say you knew Mother.”

These layers of personal experiences help build multidimensional perspectives of Mother not only as a motherly figure but also a wife, an aunt, a woman and a human.

Shin Kyung-sook poses with a copy of Please Look After Mom and the Man Asian literary prize.
In spite of the multiplicity of voices, the transitions between characters are never clearly indicated but rather cleverly inserted with a switch in pronouns, using the first-person voice exclusively only for the mother, while the rest of the family was in the second and third person point of views.

Mother became the symbol for the author to convey a larger message, which she explains in her afterword.

“We live in a modern era of materialism, where practically anything is possible, and yet, we may have lost the most important thing of all – that which makes us human – so I chose mother as a symbol of what I believe we might have lost.”

Through these losses, the novel draws out a basic human fear of living with regrets, constantly reminding us to cherish people and things before they are regrettably and irreversibly gone.

“You press the phone closer to your ear, listening to your daughter’s forlorn cries. Her tears seem to trickle down your phone line. Your face becomes marred with tears. Even if everyone in the world forgets, your daughter will remember. That your wife truly loved the world, and that you loved her.”

This is a novel that will break your heart, a true ode to the mother’s unrequited love and affection for her sons and daughters.

Author Shin will be attending this year’s Singapore Writers Festival and I do hope to meet her during the events. Click here if you might interested in reading my previous review about “The Hours” by author Michael Cunningham, who will also be gracing the festival.

Do stay tune to my blog for more Singapore Writers Festival updates in November!

Here are some other links related to the event:
My 2011 experience at the Singapore Writers Festival
Official website of the Singapore Writers Festival
Ticketing website to buy the festival’s pass

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