Book Recommendation: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
Sometime during my childhood, I learned that Heaven was under the feet of my mother. I was probably sitting in Sunday School, resenting that I was there instead of sleeping in, wishing to be anywhere else. What did it mean, that Heaven was beneath her feet? Was it a mobile place? Did I have to lift her to get in? For a long time, my mother was just my mother. She wasn’t the key to Heaven. And so it was in Please Look After Mom as well.
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There are two questions swirling at the center of Please Look After Mom, a heartbreaking look at a family’s unraveling after its older, ailing matriarch goes missing at a subway station in Seoul. The first comes fast; it hits you hard, in the gut, and makes you think that if it were you, if it were your mom who had gotten lost, you would do whatever it took to find her. In fact, you would never lose your mother in the first place. You are so caring, so diligent a child that the prospect of not knowing your mom’s whereabouts is actually impossible. But is that true? If your mom got lost, would you pace the streets of your city, day in and day out, like you expect the characters here to do? Would you place ads in the paper and flyers on telephone poles? Would you revisit the subway station over and over? Well, would you? After a while, probably not. You have a life, a job, a family of your own. But you wonder, if this happened, would you do more than they did to find their lost mom?
While that sinks in, another more insidious question creeps up. There are hints of it in the first chapter, when the daughter describes her hot impatience and resulting regret at not treating her mother better. Then in the next section, the oldest brother, Hyong-Chol, reflects with bitterness the times Mom did so much for him and he didn’t appreciate it. Next up is Dad, who realizes, after 50 years of marriage and regret, that he misses his wife—that he loves the woman he always treated as a servant. It comes together in the final chapter, when you start to realize that no one knows Mom. No one knows who she is, or what she loves, or how she hurts. Her secrets, her desires, her failures—the things that define her are the things no one knows and the things no one bothers to know. To her family, Mom is just Mom. You read this and you think that’s not how you think of your mom. You know she had a childhood, and that she fell in love, and that she wishes she had more time to read. And you think that because she has a job and friends and a life, she’s more than just a mom. You think that you know her.
But you forget that at critical moments. You forget what she sacrificed and suffered to bring you into this world. You forget that she shares your success and your pain more vividly than anyone else. You forget that Heaven lies at your mom’s feet.
Please Look After Mom, the winner of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, is a beautiful book. The mystery is intriguing, but the emotion embedded in Kyung-Sook Shin’s words is intoxicating. It leaves you in a bit of a stupor, the realization (or reminder) that your mom is more than just your mom. And you only break out of that daze when you turn the last page in tears and reach for the phone. You have to tell Mom you love her.
Source: I borrowed this book from my sister, Safiya.