Saturday, 29 June 2013

'Please Look After Mother' by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mother  is a novel that demands attention. It has been translated into over twenty languages, has sold over 2 million copies, and won the 2011 Man Asia Literary Prize, beating off opposition from, among others, Amitav Ghosh, Haruki Murakami, Yan Lianke, and Banana Yoshimoto.

So what has made it so successful?

One potential surprise is that this is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven novel. As the different family members learn what they should have known already about Mother so too do we. There is a gradual accumulation of detail. Revelation is slow. But, because it's slow, it's all the more devastating.

The novel also captures a particular moment in history beautifully. This is a novel about the generation gap, about the problems of modernity. As Kyung-Sook Shin points out in this interview“It’s the mother who goes missing, but that’s a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be the mom who disappears; it could be anything precious to us that has been lost, as we’ve moved from a traditional society to a modern society.” She adds that, “Kids nowadays are definitely different from the traditional generation that came before us. And I don’t think that’s restricted to Korean society.”  

But what really makes this novel is narrative technique. This is how it opens:

"It's been one week since Mother went missing.

"The family is gathered at your brother Hyong-chol's house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mother was last seen."

This is very disconcerting. I am not South Korean. I am not a woman. My mother has not just gone missing. The opening of the novel is therefore deeply unsettling (even alienating in the Brechtian sense). I found myself fighting against it for the first thirty pages or so but, gradually, as the daughter comes to terms not just with her mother's disappearance but also with their limited relationship ("Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers"), I was forced to reconsider my own family relationships. 

Powerful as this opening section is, one of the real strengths of the book is that it does not over-rely on the second person narrative. The second section is written in the third person but with one of the sons as the focaliser. Suddenly we gain another perspective. We learn more about key family relationships. We are back on more familiar ground. 

Only to find that the rug has been pulled out from under our feet in the third section - another second person narrative this time told from the husband's perspective.

By the time we get to the fourth section, where we get to hear Mother's own voice, we feel that we have begun to rediscover her. By realising how badly we have treated her - and we really do feel as though it is we, the readers, who have mistreated her - we come to know her as we have never managed to before.

When Mother speaks (and I won't spoil the plot by explaining the context) we realise that there are many things we have missed. She is a deeply impressive woman, even with her flaws, but a woman we still don't fully know. The mystery of the person is deeper than we have kidded ourselves into thinking that it might be.

So why has this novel been so successful? Because it has something very important to say about the family in the contemporary world and it says it in an unusual and unexpectedly powerful way. 

But there's more to the novel than this. Mother is a Catholic. The novel ends in Rome. In fact it ends with a prayer to Our Lady. A major prize-winning bestseller ends with a prayer to Our Lady. Why? Because it becomes clear that, no matter how much they regret the way they have treated Mother, her children and husband can no longer redeem the past, simply because Mother is now missing. The only possible ending, it seems, is to reach out to another and greater Mother, symbolised in Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's. Just when we think we have got to the heart of the mystery, it opens out before us.

For more on Korean Catholic literature click here.


  1. You ought you know to refer to your self as Roman Catholic, as there are other churches, notably the Orthodox, which also call themselves Catholic.

  2. Thank you for your comment, which is an interesting one and which deserves a post of its own in reply, which I will now get on with writing.