What would you do if your mother, the one woman in our lives that we most often take for granted, disappeared one day? It’s a tough question to answer or even to contemplate for many of us. South Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin in her book Please Look After Mother, has done exactly that ,exploring the varied reactions from different family members when Park So-nyo disappears at a busy subway in Seoul. Suddenly for her husband and four children, the woman who was the one constant in their lives is no gone.
The novel opens with the line, “It’s been one week since mother went missing.” The story is narrated by her eldest daughter, an accomplished writer, who moved out of their village home to the city like all the other children, leaving behind the elderly parents. From there on, excepting for the obligatory telephones calls and occasional visits, the children are each too absorbed in their lives to focus on their aging Mother who is slowly being beset with illness. After her disappearance, her elder daughter in particular is guilt-ridden and left dissecting every little detail of the times she had taken “Mom” for granted, neglected her, said hurtful things and paid scant attention to her advice.
Memories of Mother comes back to haunt her daughter and she recalls instances which she now realizes were the dreams that her mother could never fulfill for herself but which she sought to do through her children. Here’s a telling passage from the book.
“Since you heard about Mother’s disappearance, you haven’t been able to focus on a single thought, besieged by long forgotten memories unexpectedly popping up. And the regret that trailed each memory.
Years ago, a few days before you left hometown for the big city, Mother took you to a clothing shop at the market. You chose a plain dress, but Mother liked one with frills on the straps and hem.
“What about this one?”
“No”, you said, pushing it away.
‘Why not? Try it on.’ Mother, young back then, opened her eyes wide, uncomprehending. The frilly dress was worlds away from the dirty towel that was always wrapped around Mother’s head, which, like other farming women, she wore to soak up the sweat on her brow as she worked.
“Is it,” Mother said but she held the dress up and kept examining it, as if she didn’t what to walk away.”I would try it on if I were you.”
Feeling bad you had called it childish, you said, “This isn’t even your style.”
Mother said,” No, I like these kinds of clothes, it’s just that I vet never been able to wear them.’
Hence the story unfolds, with recollections of the days gone by as well as the efforts by the children to track down Mother following up leads from people who claim to have seen her. It’s a poignant time for them but also a time of self discovery as they unearth many unknown facets of their Mother’s life and realize that she too had dreams which she never spoke about but kept canceled within her.
The author Kyung-Sook Shin tells a story that resonates with people across borders.The book which was first written in Korean and later translated into English by Chi-Young Kim won her the Man Asian literary prize in March this year.