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.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Frank Cottrell Boyce

I have written before about Frank Cottrell Boyce, a fascinating author and all-round nice guy. (See here and here and here.)

One of his strengths is that he is difficult to pigeonhole: a homeschooling Catholic parent who used to write reviews for Living Marxism; a scriptwriter for Brookside and Coronation Street who has a D.Phil in 17th Century History; a co-creator of the Olympics opening ceremony who writes great children's books.

In this interview with The Guardian he makes all sorts of interesting points. I've picked out just a few:

In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the flying car with a mind of its own, he was presented with a readymade vehicle with which to attempt all these things. Compared with the highly personal ideas and experiences that lay behind previous books, the continuation of the Fleming brand looks baldly commercial. But there is charm and humour in Cottrell Boyce's two sequels (the original was published in three instalments: the plan is to copy this formula and call it a day). This is partly drawn from his pleasure in the fact that the original is that rare thing, an adventure story in which the parents are invited along.
"That would certainly never happen in Roald Dahl," he says. "The problem I had with Chitty is that people remember the movie, which is a Dahl movie [Dahl wrote the screenplay] … there's a supercar, a supervillain and lots of sexual perversity." The Fleming original, by contrast, is "very sweet".


Meanwhile Cottrell Boyce and his wife, now back in Liverpool, carried on having children. In all they have seven, aged between eight and 27, four boys and three girls. From his account it is a warm and close family, with the youngest children home-schooled mainly because their parents like having everyone together in the house, but also to shield them from the highly commercialised peer pressure Cottrell Boyce describes as "weaponised advertising". His view of celebrity culture magazines such as Closer borders on disgust.


"Being read to at school changed my life. I really became aware of that during the Olympics because we were all of us in that room drawing on stuff we'd read as children and none of it was stuff we were examined on, it wasn't anything measurable. It was stuff that people had shared with us that we went on to share. If you look at that ceremony and what was in it, it was a sense of wonderment in storytelling. We found we had this common heritage – Mary Poppins and so on."


Although he probably wouldn't say so, Cottrell Boyce is a writer with a clear moral purpose, who believes the whole point of books is to extend our imaginative reach, and give us pleasure in the process. Recently he has been reading stories by George Saunders, recommended by his adult sons, and the children's books of Rumer Godden with his youngest. 

and, finally, 

He says he is slow, prone to distractions, and when asked why he did something often names a person or a favour ("I'm very big on loyalty, very big on friendship maybe").

Sunday, 23 June 2013


I have been re-reading Jean-Dominique Bauby's wonderful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a book blinked one letter at a time by a man, Bauby, who suffered a massive stroke at a horribly young age, leaving him "locked-in". I won't spoil the book by summarising it; it's worth reading for the beautiful prose alone.

But, of course, it's more than that. It's a reminder of the dignity of the human being. When they discover what locked-in syndrome is, most students say they would rather be dead. After reading the book most of them change their mind.

There's also a great film of the book, which makes several significant changes. Some of the factual details - like the number of children Bauby had - are wrong but it's a powerful and moving movie nevertheless. I'd definitely watch it first before showing your students - there is a potentially controversial scene set in Lourdes, for example - but be warned: it's a film that makes quite an impact. Here's the trailer:

It's also worth pointing out that Bauby was not alone in finding dignity in terribly difficult circumstances. Gary Parkinson, who used to play football for Middlesborough, has continued working for the club since becoming locked-in. Here's what his son has to say about his father's condition.

Another pretty amazing guy is DJ EyeTech whose website is well worth working your way through. To read about the experiences of these men is a humbling and uplifting experience.