“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. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.”
I’m in a reviewing sort of mood. Perhaps because of the holiday season, my work has slowed and I find myself with time on my hands for a change. That is, when wee reader is napping and the chores are somewhat done (chores are never really ever done, are they?). And I’m reading but I’m sometimes also thinking about the books I’ve just finished. Like this one.
Please Look After Mom is one book that had stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because I’ve read very few books set in Korea, much less by a Korean author. Maybe it’s because of the very disorientating second-person narrative, and the different points of view the author takes on, switching from character to character with each chapter. It really is very jarring, this use of ‘you’. I glanced through a review that mentioned those choose-your-adventure books I loved as a kid. And it is a little like that. You. You. And you. Your mom (mother? – ‘mom seems too American, and rather out of place in this very Korean book). It is very strange and quite hard to get used to.
So Mom (your mom) disappears in Seoul. She and Father are at the subway station, Father steps into the train. The doors close. Mom is still on the platform. Father gets off at the next stop and backtracks but she’s gone.
This much you know from the publicity, the book description, when the story opens with the family is desperate and determined to find Mom. Their idea? Flyers. And that job falls on ‘you’, or Chi-hon, the writer and daughter, for words that are apt, for words that will bring Mom back home.
“Hyong-chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush, as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t. You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom.”
And as Chi-hon goes about her search, she can’t help but think of Mom, remember Mom, wonder what she was doing when Mom disappeared.
The first chapter has a rather instructive, perhaps even chiding tone. One of the sections begins with: “either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers”. Another informs that: “Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them.” And that put me off. I felt like I was in some kind of moral education class. But I wondered if that was a cultural thing. If that was something more Korean, more Asian (ok so I am Asian myself, but a more ‘westernised’ Asian, speaking, reading, writing English far better than my ‘mother tongue’ of Chinese. I have never – and am incapable of – reading literature in Chinese, other than what the texts that I was forced to read in school). So I stuck it out. And things do get a little better.
The next chapter swings us around to Chi-hon’s brother Hyong-chol, who looks for Mom in all his old neighborhoods, after receiving tips about her location. Like his sister, he thinks of Mom, wonders what he had been up to when she went missing.
Then their father. A man who hasn’t seen his wife for who she really is, not for many years, perhaps not ever.
I’ve been wondering if my new-ish status as a mother (nearly nine months now, where did the time go?) – and a stay-at-home one at that – has affected the way I perceive things. And in this book, the way I’ve been reading the children’s perception of their mother. The way she has been taken for granted by her family. So there is all this sadness. Of the consciousness of love only after a loss.
The sentiment is there. The translation is a little wanting and the initial tone off-putting. So I am hesitant to recommend this book.