“There are moments one revisits after something happens, especially after something bad happens. Moments in which one thinks, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
These are the lines from the book ‘Please Look After Mother’ by South Korean writer Kyung Sook Shin which was published in 2008 and translated into English in 2011 by Chi-Young Kim. It is true, right? We all have been there! We all have done something which we wish we had not done and that may lead to a different result, a positive result. This book is about the same regrets everyone has after a woman gets lost and never gets found.
An ageing couple decided to visit their children who have moved to Seoul for a better life and opportunities from the countryside. Whenever they visit, someone is there to pick them up from the Seoul station but on that unfortunate day, they took an underground train to reach their destination. They ran towards the train that had just arrived. The husband got on, but the wife was left behind.
He realized that only when the train already left. He also had with him his wife’s bag, so she left behind with nothing. The family starts looking for her by distributing fliers, placing an ad in the newspaper, and looking up at places where she could be sighted by strangers and in doing so, they have a flashback of the time they spent with her. The book is divided into four parts.
The first part takes the perspective of the eldest daughter (Chi-Hon) who is in her mid-thirties, unmarried and a writer, while going through her memories, she realises that she stopped sharing anything with her mother once she moved on to the city because she felt her mother won’t be able to understand as she never had those experiences. She also realizes that as a grown up she had no time to sit and listen to her. In fact, as a grown-up, she was always angry at her and rude as well in replies to her queries.
The second part has the viewpoint of the eldest son (Hyuong-Chol) who is the favourite child of the mother being her firstborn. While going through his memories you learn about the sacrifices a mother makes for their children. Those sacrifices are taken for granted. They are either ignored or never noticed.
The third part has her husband’s viewpoint. He realized that he didn’t know his wife well. She was not able to tell him everything. He was her husband but not a companion who listened to her and talked to her about her anxieties and fears. He was also not there to take care of children with her. She did everything for him and he took it for granted. He also ignored her illnesses. She has started forgetting things and places and he kept ignoring thinking such things are common with ageing. On the other hand, when he fell ill, it was a big deal, and his wife took care of him.
The fourth part is from the perspective of the mother (Park So-Nyo). Who is most probably dead, and it is her spirit who is talking. So far you get to learn about her from different points of view. In this part, you learn about her from her point of view. She talked about her younger daughter who made her happy by taking her out to see places in Seoul and gave her some good memories. I liked this daughter of hers. You also learned that she had a male friend with whom she was able to share her anxieties. She also talked about her sister-in-law being her role model which nobody who knows her can guess.
This book is about the guilt we all feel when a person is gone but does nothing when he or she is around. It will make you think about your relationships with your loved ones. It will make you wonder if you know them. It will make you ask questions, are you spending enough time with them? Are you being nice to them? Also, do your loved ones know you? This book is also about motherhood, ageing, illness, immigration from the countryside to the city, and Korean culture.
It is a bit repetitive, and I wish the author added the perspective of the other two sons or at least something about them as their story is completely missing but overall, it is a good read and a book that everyone can relate to. It was published in around 26 countries and sold millions of copies in South Korea alone. It also won the author ‘Man Asian Literary Prize,’ making her the first woman to win the prestigious literary award.