Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completed: Please Look After Mom


I'm not sure I wrote a preview post about this one. I bought this book a few years ago when it won the Man Asian Prize for fiction. As you may remember, I try to read the big prize winners ever year---which has come in handy for my Tournament of Books reading! However, there are lots of less mainstream reading awards out there. You may also remember that I feel a little stuck in the "American authors" rut, so I'm pretty sure I picked this up at a time where I was looking to expand my reading horizons. I'm glad I did---this was an enjoyable, interesting, and quick read.

Please Look After Mom is set in modern day South Korea, and was translation from Korean. It won the Man Asain Literary Prize in 2011. This is the author's first time being published in English. The story is about a sixty-nine year old woman who goes missing from the Seoul train station one day. She's with her husband, but he's walking too fast and gets on the train without realizing she's not with him. The story has four major sections, with each section being told through the lens of one of her family members---her daughter, son, husband, and finally herself. Here's the weird part, though, the narration is told mostly in second person. It's a strange hybrid that doesn't seem like it would work, but somehow it does. You get to experience Mom through each character, experiencing their worries, fears, hopes, and memories.

I'll admit, this one kind of snuck up on me. Even though it's about an older mother with adult children, it still hit home. There's a lot of poignant and pointed observations about motherhood. At one point, the daughter asks Mom if she enjoyed cooking. "Mom held your eyes for a moment, 'I don't like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not.' Mom's expression asked, What kind of question is that? And then she murmured, 'If you only do what you like, who's going to do what you don't like?'" The novel makes clear that Mom is a woman who always fulfilled her duty to her family, even if they didn't always reciprocate. This pull between duty and freedom is experienced by each character, but only after Mom goes missing do we realize the extent to which Mom herself was torn.

Each character reveals some different part of Mom's life, her secrets, and her fears. The daughter is a famous author, but Mom is illiterate and cannot read her own daughter's books. Her son reveals the lengths to which Mom went to make sure all of her children were educated, which only makes sense when her husband reveals how his younger brother desperately wanted to go to school and they couldn't send him. Mom loved the boy, and when he dies tragically, she blames herself for never going to school. Mom reveals her long-standing friendship (affair?) with a young man in her village. The book unravels all of the small secrets of an ordinary life. There's something delicate and lovely about the careful unpacking of Mom's life.

I enjoyed reading about Korean culture and family life. The book's ending was lovely and sad. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I'd definitely recommend it. It's a short but lovely exploration of motherhood, family, and identity.