Monday, May 21, 2012

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin


Please Look After Mom was the library book group selection for my evening group this past month.  I chose it because I'd heard a lot about it last fall when it was published in America.  I don't read that many books in translation, though I'd like to read more, and I'd never read a Korean book before, though I have read books set in Korea.  I thought this would be a good choice for the group to read during Asian-Pacific Heritage month.  It wasn't until later that I realized that we'd be discussing it the week before Mother's Day.

If you don't know anything about it, here's the setup:  told from different points of view, this is the story of a family's search for their missing mother.  The sixty-something parents are traveling by train to visit one of the adult children, and in the busy Seoul train station, the parents get separated in a crowd.  The father accidentally gets on the train without the mother, not realizing she's left behind.  She seems to have vanished without a trace, and the book is about the search for the the mother, and the impact of her absence on the family.  It's told in four sections, from four points of view. 

This book really resonated with me for a couple of reasons.  First, I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and though the two cultures are obviously different, there's enough similarity that I was able to picture a lot of the scenery, both in the countryside and in the cities.  I could absolutely believe the part about the parents getting separated -- I've been in the Tokyo JR (Japan Rail) train station during rush hour, and it's overwhelming.  I've seen how crowded the platforms are and how many people are trying to get on those trains.  Several times I was traveling with my children, who were quite small, and it was horrifying to imagine getting separated from them (though Japan is an extremely safe country for tourists; I'm not implying we were ever in danger.)

Secondly, my husband is Asian, and even though his mother has very little in common with the missing mother from the novel, I could absolutely relate to this mother's devotion towards her children.  For example, in one scene in the book, the mother is having dinner with her eldest grown son, and she keeps taking the best pieces of meat out of her own bowl and putting them in his -- my mother-in-law used to do this all the time.  And like the the woman in the story, my in-laws would do absolutely anything to help her children with their education.  She's not like the tiger mother that published that book last year, but there's definitely a lot of commitment to higher learning in Asian families.

This book was really well-written and the story really captured me, but I did have a little trouble getting used to it because it's written in the second person.  It's not a writing technique I encounter much, and it's really not my favorite.  The different narrators always used "you" and it took me awhile to figure out who they were talking about.  

I liked how this book slowly revealed different layers of the characters, especially the mother.  The author really showed how little we know about our own family members and what made them they way they are, especially the mother.  However, I wasn't really thrilled with the ending.  Some of it seemed very unresolved and even though I can sort of assume what happened, a lot of it seemed unexplained.  Overall I did really like it and would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to read Asian literature in translation.  It was a really good book selection for a discussion group so I'd highly recommend it for those also, as long as you can get enough copies which is always a problem in my library system.

18 comments:

  1. I have put this on a wishlist. It sounds really interesting and I haven't heard of the book before. Nice write up. Cheers, Pam

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    1. Thanks! It was very interesting and nice to read an original work from another culture, not just a book set in a different country written in English. It's sold a million copies world wide, wish it would get more attention here.

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  2. I enjoyed this one too! I set a goal to read more translated work, and I've been enjoying working my way through the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist this year. I've discovered some wonderful books I never would have read otherwise!

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    1. I've never even heard of that prize! Thanks for mentioning it. I read so little work in translation (except for my fixation on Zola!) I need to expand my reading base, it's always good to get perspectives.

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  3. I thought this book was amazing. You mentioned the complexity of the family's relationships, and the shifts in understanding that come with the different narrators. I was also fascinated by the setting, knowing almost nothing about life in South Korea. I so wanted the family to know what happened to their mother - I can't imagine living with that uncertainty, that terrible not knowing.

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    1. I suspect I know the outcome, but the ending got a little weird for me. I was a bit disappointed that the location changed in the last section. I thought it suffered from leaving Korea.

      The not knowing would be absolute torture.

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    2. I think I know what happened too - but not how, and I think that's the real question for me. And I agree the shift in location was a bit disconcerting!

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  4. This sounds like a really interesting book; I've added it to my to-read list on Good Reads. One of my reading goals for the year is to read more non-Western literature, and this book sounds really promising--I've always been interested in Asian culture and, in general, I tend to really enjoy books with multiple narrators. Although I'm not sure how I'll feel about the second-person narration either. Guess I'll find out!

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    1. The second-person narration took some getting used to. I can understand why it isn't used very often, it can be really awkward.

      I haven't read many Asian writers, though I did really like a Japanese book called Out by Natsuo Kirino, a thriller/murder story. I also have The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki on the TBR shelf. It's supposed to be a bit like Pride and Prejudice which naturally intrigues me!

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  5. I've heard of this one but haven't read any reviews. It does sound very interesting.

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  6. There was some buzz going around the internet last fall when it was released here in the U.S., but then it kind of died out. I thought it would be a good choice for Asian-Pacific Heritage Month for the library's book group. The Mother's Day connection was completely unplanned, but it worked out really well.

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  7. Never read Korean literature and this books sounds very good. I'm very fond of the Asian-American writer, Amy Tan and am anxiously awaiting her new novel, but I think it may be 2013, now.

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    1. I haven't read any Amy Tan in forever! I think the last thing I read was The Opposite of Fate which I really liked, though it's nonfiction. I never did read Saving Fish From Drowning. I should look for it. I didn't realize it was so long since her last book.

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  8. This sounds like such an interesting book, it's easy to see why it appealed to you. Second person narration sometimes seems disconcerting to me, probably because I don't come across it very often. Adding this to my wishlist.

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    1. I can't think of any other books I really liked that use second person successfully. It's a tough viewpoint.

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  9. Yours is the second review of this book I have read and it certainly sounds interesting. Oh, and I definitely can relate to your Tokyo-train-station-fear: I spent 5 weeks in Japan and prayed everytime when I had to take a train. Fortunately I never got lost :)

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    1. Most of the trains stations weren't bad, but there was one time we were in the biggest station in Tokyo at rush hour with small kids and my mother who was visiting. It wasn't scary, just overwhelming. It was both a JR train station AND a huge subway junction, just enormous!

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  10. I loved this book and I'm so glad you enjoyed it too. The ending did leave things unresolved. I was hoping for a happy ending but those aren't always guaranteed. I can't wait to read Sook's next book when it's translated later on this year.

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