I enjoyed a lovely and interesting book last week— Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Chi-Young Kim). It read easily, smoothly, but it’s a book that won’t leave me and I find myself thinking about it still days after finishing. I keep thinking about how it worked, and the texture of it. I think I am mostly taken with its slightly odd structure and 2nd person POV, two things that will charm me immediately. It’s also set in South Korea and very subtly immerses the reader in Korean customs at a time of great intergenerational change. Finally, it asks some provocative questions about the nature of familial love.
The basic premise of the novel is that an older couple has come to Seoul to visit their children. At the train station, they get separated from each other and the wife/mother goes missing. The book is about the family looking for her—both in the present story in and around Seoul, but also “looking for her” in a much more metaphorical way.
I love odd POVs and Please Look After Mom plays with variations of the 2nd person. Other times I’ve seen this done it’s usually a kind of mock how-to type of narrative. (I’m thinking of Lorrie Moore’s “How to be an Other Woman” and similar examples.) In this novel, however, the 2nd person functions like a kind of self-accusation – the narrator is both the subject and the object of what’s being said. If you know Jamaica Kincaid’s powerful and very short story “Girl” – it reminded me in some ways of how that 2nd person works. An inner voice that is shaded with a particular emotion.
Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station subway platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again—a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing.
This example quote is just one of the 2nd person POVs, because it shifts to inhabit several characters… and it even uses the POV to reveal the answer to one of the book’s central questions. I loved that trick (though maybe others would find it a bit like cheating—I didn’t, it felt very natural). And I love thinking how the POV enhanced the book’s emotional current, while playing with that very distance between narrator and character.
The book’s metaphorical “searching” is extremely well-done, looking at ideas of memory and regret. By inhabiting so many different voices, it questions how a family sees each other, and specifically how each family member “sees” the family’s central figure—the mother. In this case, no one seems able to see her until she vanishes and then each person is stuck inside a memory-reel, looking for clues. Who was she? What was her life? Why didn’t she seem important until she left?
Finally, in a subtle but deliberate way, Please Look After Mom is also very much about motherhood—from different angles and how it is transformed from one generation to the next. It’s carefully and lovingly done. Both smart and beautiful.