A story of lives lived with unspoken longing

2012-09-05 00:00


Please look after Mother

Kyung-Sook Shin



“COMPASSION is the underlying theme of my work. I write because the world is filled with regret and sorrow, because there’s so much that has yet to be resolved … I write so that we may embrace the problems we must bear in our hearts, so that we may consider them together.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that carries an author’s explanation of the work in a postscript, plus questions for reading groups to discuss. Book clubs must be big business in South Korea, which would explain these unusual additions and the “million copy bestseller” status of this book.

I am not sure what might engender that level of sales figures, but then I am not oriental, but a Westerner used to high levels of emotional disclosure and voracious individuality. In the more emotionally repressed East, where the collective trumps the individual, this book is being hailed in the twittersphere as “life-changing”.

It revolves around So-nyo, hard-working, long-suffering mother of five grown-up children, who vanishes in Seoul. As her family searches for her and her absence lengthens, they discover that they never really knew her. They also realise that they took her for granted and failed to appreciate her pivotal role in their lives.

She is so self-effacing and self-sacrificing as to be almost invisible as a character in her own right. They recognise as one twittertater put it: “You don’t know what you’ve got till you’ve lost it.”

As Shin explains, guilt, regret and sorrow form the strongest strands of this story, although occasional shafts of love, joy, and hope light up the otherwise bleak emotional landscape.

Rather disconcertingly, it is written almost entirely in the second or third person. The only first person voice is So-nyo’s. The other chapters carry the voices of her daughter, son and husband. There are also sequences of magical realism, which may be strange for some Western readers. However, they can surely appreciate the beauty of the spare prose that paints vivid pictures not only of the rural and urban landscapes of Korea, but also of the hidden emotional terrain of lives lived with unspoken longing, shame, remorse and passion.

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