Review by Susanne Karine Gjønnes
Translated from Korean by Chi-young Kim
Published by W&N
South Korea has gone through an unprecedented journey from a developing country to one of the world’s largest economies in only a few decades. This transformation has led to generations growing up and living completely different realities and lives. Please Look After Mom shows these disparities through vivid, emotional stories, reminding us that many people in this very modern country still know what it is to be poor.
Please Look After Mom starts with an elderly woman who is separated from her husband at the Seoul Subway Station and goes missing. She leaves her husband, two sons and two daughters, who are suddenly forced to face a reality in which their mother is no longer with them. They have for long taken both their lives and their mother granted, but start to reflect about their relationship with the woman they call Mom, and ask questions they never previously thought about, such as: “Was she ever happy?”
Through the shifting lenses of the different members of the family comes a story covering three generations. This is a story of family and female self-sacrifice in Korea, but it could also be from a different country. It’s also a celebration of motherhood, all over the world. It’s a book that will open many feelings, as most of us have a very special relationship to our moms, and tears will run widely. Kyung-sook Shin’s excellent and moving way of writing forces the reader to reflect, in ways only the best books can do, about the things you often take for granted in life, and how you treat and think about the people most close to you.
For me, the most interesting about this book is the way it illustrates the large changes South Korea has gone through in the last 70 years, and the relationship between the times we are living in and the past. In Korea, the differences are extreme, and they add to the difficult relationship between mother and her children. Through the book, one gets an understanding of the opportunities that were not available for Koreans one or two generations ago, when education and food was a luxury; this is illustrated by the now widely eaten (and cheap) ramen. With the changes, traditional family values, culinary traditions and customs—some that will be missed and some that people are happy to leave behind—have faded from Korean culture. It sometimes seem that Kyong-Sook Shin is romanticizing the old, but most of the time she leaves it to the reader to decide whether the change is positive or a negative.
The most beautiful thing about this book is the many questions it leaves unanswered, with plenty of room for reflection. It has also taught me a lot more about Korean society than any non-fiction book could do.