“Only after Mother went missing did you realise that her stories were piled inside you, in endless stacks. Mother’s everyday life used to go on in a repeating loop, without a break. Her everyday words, which you didn’t think deeply about and sometimes dismissed as useless when she was with you, awoke in your heart, creating tidal waves. You realised that her life hadn’t changed even after the war was over, and even when the family could afford to feed itself…Mother took care of repairing the gate and the roof and the porch. Instead of helping her do the work that she did non-stop, even you thought of is as natural, and took it for granted that this was her job. Sometimes, as your brother pointed out, you thought of her life as disappointing -even though Mother, despite never having been well off, tried so hard to give you the best of everything…”
Over the years, I’ve learned to think of books as the universe’s way of communicating with me. I say this because over the years, every book that ended in my lap was in harmony to what I was going through. Conversely, I gravitate towards books that capture my current emotional state. Please Look after Mother is no exception to this.
I’ve long wanted to read this book, for no real reason except it’s a rare Korean translated novel that’s been hailed internationally. If it isn’t quite obvious yet, Asian Literature holds a dear dear place in my heart. I devour any Asian novel that comes my way, especially the rare opportunity to get an English translation of a book. Anyway, I was lucky to get a free copy from Pansing. I had requested the title and Myra was happy to oblige my fascination for the book despite the mixed reviews.
Tangentially this is going to be a personal post, however, like all my reviews I’ll try to keep this less about me and more about this wonderful, poignant, and utterly human book.
This book isn’t the easiest book to read. The mere use of “you” can be jarring as it forces the reader to participate in the book, to be part of the experience. There is a reason why this perspective is rarely used in literature, but as disturbing as it may feel, it is that participation that draws us in. It makes the reader ponder the question more actively. It demands the reader to ask: Do we know our mothers? Do we know the people we live with? Do we know them beyond the labels we so carelessly throw around?
Questions I feel we ask ourselves but easily ignore, for after all these questions are only asked by those hit by the tragedy of losing people too early whether it is in death, illness, dementia, and actual physical loss.
Losing someone we should care for
The premise is simple: the parents of four full-grown adults living in Seoul take the train to the city from the countryside. In the process the father loses the mother in the busy train station. The catch: mother is suffering from what seems to be Alzheimer’s. And as each family member confronts this tragedy, the author forces us to enter the minds of these people and explore their experiences of guilt, their memories of mother, and their discovery of the woman they thought they knew.
Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel explores our ungrateful hearts. We look at the people we live with everyday with very little importance, we think of their actions as something that falls within the expectations. Mothers are mothers. Fathers are fathers. The label mother melds into the person and character of the one carrying it. As children, we lose the idea that this woman we call mother is a person, someone who has a history of her own. And yes, children are the most ungrateful lot there could be and this novel doesn’t shy away from this. Gratefulness towards our parents most often come in adulthood when we get outside of ourselves, as the children do in this novel.
The author takes this exploration further by digging into the emotions of a neglectful husband and a seemingly cruel sister-in-law. And as these emotions unravel and as they wash their dirty laundry for the reader to see, we are taken aback. I was. As they felt more like mine than it was theirs. This is the danger of the second person perspective, as well as its power.
Human relationships are filled with the unsaid. Even the most articulate people leave the more important things unsaid. Strangely enough, those important things often come in small packages, in short phrases: Hi’s and Hellos, How are you?, Thank you, I love you, and I am hurt. Even more so in the Asian Culture where every pause is pregnant with thoughts and feelings left for the receiver to unravel.
We are introduced to a mother who suffered ever so quietly through it all. Through the memories of her children and through their analysis of this woman they grew up with, we are asked to see the woman whose hands unceasingly worked to feed and tend for her children. We see her as the woman who rarely allowed her pain to overcome her. We discover, through the fragmented memories of her children, her husband and her sister-in-law, a woman who was the pillar that kept them all together.
The unsaid feeds the guilt amongst our characters. It is the unsaid that makes mother a mysterious woman, a woman everyone thought they knew. The pregnant silence that moves this novel towards a wonderfully warm denouement marks the unraveling of the woman called mother.
Mothers are People too
When I read this book, I thought of one of my closest friend’s mother who raised five kids while running a household like a well-oiled machine. Every time I visited my friend’s house, her mother never fails to make me feel like I too was her daughter. She was the epitome of motherhood to me, something that I wasn’t so familiar with. She had the exact same dedication to her children—feeding them, keeping things running, and making every little thing possible for her children. Yet, as I remember this woman—my mother’s friend as I read this book, I come to realize I see her only as that.
Mothers need to be warm, loving people who are constantly giving us what we need, beyond that we forget they too get hurt. We forget that they too feel inadequate. We forget that at times they aren’t so sure about what they do. We forget how vulnerable they are. The more loving a mother is the greater their vulnerability to our negligence, abandonment and our ungratefulness. And it is this realization which deepens children’s guilt and, at the same time, their appreciation of the woman who never ceased to consider their needs first.
We discover ‘Mother’s’ humanity as the author allows us to peek into mother’s thoughts at the latter part of the book. We discover how she would run to a friend when she felt alone. We discover her regrets and her moments of weakness. We discover her love, the love that her children understand very little of. We are reminded that mothers are people too, they may possess some unworldly powers in their ability to make things happen, but they are so human, they hurt too.
This book’s strength lies in its ability to let the reader experience the range of emotions every character felt as they dealt with the tragedy of losing their wife and their mother, while at the same time examining a common human experience. Ironically, as dementia makes the family lose a mother and wife, it is this loss that forces them to reconstruct their idea of mother as they rebuild their image of her through their memories.
It is loss that allowed them to find their mother and their father’s wife. The beauty of this novel is in its bluntness—it captures human lives as it thrives in the everyday. While the readers are treated with a nicely tied ending, our characters are not as fortunate. We see them traverse life with little holes in their hearts partly praying for the heavens to look after mother and partly wondering how they can move on.
Please Look after Mother isn’t something everyone would enjoy. However, it is worth reading. It is a book for people who both love and hate their mothers. It allows us to suspend our judgment on people we think we know. The novel allowed me to be more forgiving of the imperfections of my mother.
“Do you think we’ll be able to be with her again, even if it’s just for one day? Do you think I’ll be given the time to understand Mother and hear her stories and console her for her old dreams buried somewhere in the pages of time? If I’m given even a few hours, I’m going to tell her that I love all things she did, that I love Mother, who was able to do all that, that I love Mother’s life, which nobody remembers. That I respect her.”
Since this book is in celebration of our bimonthly theme on Girl Power, I felt it apt to point out that without our Mothers (especially the loving and tireless ones) we wouldn’t be here, thriving in this world. And strangely enough, I write this review as Mother’s Day is just around the corner. Perfect timing :)
Copy of the novel is courtesy of Pansing Books.
Please Look After Mom, 2011 Winner of The Man Asian Literary Prize
AWB Update: 40 (35)