Title: Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해)
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin (신경숙)
Translated by: Chi-Young Kim (김지영)
Softcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Knopf (April 5, 2011)
Seemingly effortlessly translated into English, Please Look After Mom unabashedly attacks the heart and leaves the speechless reader in a state that can only be remedied by picking up the phone and calling your mom. Internationally recognized author Shin Kyung-Sook's unforgettably poignant 2008 novel is the recipient of several literary awards. However, is it all just culturally specific schmaltz lost on American readers or is there enough literary substance to warrant its international acclaim?
The story is about an elderly woman who accidentally becomes lost amidst a busy Seoul subway stop and her selfish family's frantic, consequential search. The book is contextually divided into four narratives: the critical eldest daughter, the favorited eldest son, the nomadic absentee husband, and finally the saint-like mother herself. Each chapter delves more into the tender, borderline naive characterization of the mother and the subsequent guilt felt by those who ultimately failed to live up to their proper familial roles. The characters are humanly flawed but forgivingly empathetic. You find yourself criticizing almost each family member for their insensitivity but then apologetically root for their redemption.
Culturally speaking, the setting is a striking contrast between socially progressive Seoul-centered modernization and war-torn traditional country-side values that are more and more lost with each passing generation. The mother's poverty-stricken childhood is but a dim memory to her doted children who knew little of her sacrifice and sorrow. Other than a few culturally contextualized moments, the narration needs very little pretext for the average non-Korean reader to appreciate the depth of this story. After all, everyone has a mother.
That's the general consensus with this touching story. At some part in most people's lives, like the characters in the story, we all have an epiphany and realize that our own mothers were not born mothers but instead chose to be mothers. Even though my own mother's personal sacrifices were naturally different than the ones described in the book, her loving presence is echoed in this story, as many other readers, too, have expressed.
It's indeed a sentimental Korean tear-jerker but thankfully it's also well-written enough to be almost effortlessly appreciated by an international audience. Having read the English version, I'm anxious to read the Korean version in hopes to further pick up on certain nuances that were likely to have been inescapably lost in translation, such as the subtle differences between "Mom (엄마)" and "Mother (어머니)" and the title's ambiguous message (엄마를 부탁해) which could be interpreted as either a dutiful order or a spiritual request.
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This novel doesn't exactly pertain to Korean studies, but it is a work that deserves to be talked about. It's got me wondering what else I'm missing in Korean literature, that's for sure.
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