Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin is a masterpiece. Honestly I could sum up this review by using just these two words. If there was a book that made me feel lucky to be alive in order to read it, in 2011 was Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side. And after that came Please Look after Mom by Kyung-sook Shin – I mean chronologically, not quality wise, they are both superb. This is one of those books that are so full of grace that they take the reader’s breath away; not only for their plot, but mostly because of their prose; a prose that’s lyrical, dream-like, poetic, that sounds nostalgic and melancholic at the same time.

It all begins when an elderly woman called Park So-nyo vanishes into thin air while at the Seoul train station. She had just arrived there with her husband and they were supposed to board the Metro to visit one of their children. He made it onto the train, she didn’t, and by the time he realized she wasn’t there and went back to the station to find her, it was already too late, she had disappeared. What happened to her? Why did she do that to him? To them? Did she just get lost or…?

Well, there’s no one who can answer these questions, so the only thing we can do, is follow the story as told by an anonymous narrator. In its epicenter, as one would expect, is the woman and her husband, but two of their five children as well. They all felt guilty for what happened to her, and they were right to do so, since they’ve spent their entire lives taking her for granted, as an unmovable presence in their reality who would remain there forever.

It is through the memories of the two children that we get to know her better. And it is exactly through the same procedure that they, the son and the daughter, come to realize that that ordinary, illiterate woman had given them everything they ever needed, that in essence she sacrificed her life for their future/present happiness. It was for them that she went on living with a drunk, unfaithful and unworthy man, and it was for their sakes that she sold the only thing she ever owned. I have lived in darkness, without a spark of light, my entire life, she says. She was illiterate; that’s what she meant by the word darkness. That was her secret, the most important one, but not the only one.

As the story progresses and we get to know her better she surprises us all the more, since later rather than sooner we come to understand that Ordinary is not exactly the word one would use to describe this woman, unless he added an extra before. She was a strong woman, solid as a rock; a woman full of courage and with a big heart, who once didn’t hesitate to help a poor man who was trying to steal her children’s food. And she did that just because he was poorer than her. She had little but she knew how to count her blessings, and you can’t say that for a lot of people.

But her philanthropy, her humanity was not exhausted in that simple act. She used to feed some of the neighborhood’s kids as well, and use the free time she definitely didn’t have to help out in the everyday chores of an orphanage she helped built, or which rather she created out of thin air herself. No one seemed to have paid her any respect for that; no one; until now, that she’s just like a being who most likely once existed in a dream.

The author doesn’t only offer the reader an amazing story but she also manages to speak directly to his soul. Wake up, she seems to say to him, and take a good look at life and the people that surround you. Recognize who you are and to whom you owe that.

Park So-nyo’s story could be the story of every good mother. However Kyung-sook Shin’s book is unlike any other. It is so deeply humane, it sounds so utterly true, that does not only touch the soul but also helps it open its wings to the world out there and to the people; the real people; the most important ones. There’s some melancholy here but despite the subject matter it’s a sweet one; just like its heroine.

This is one of the best novels that I’ve read during the last decade or so; no wonder that it won the Man Asian Literary Prize. I do wonder though why it didn’t get the attention it deserves from the press in the west. Is it because Shin is not Murakami? Or is it simply because our western arrogance doesn’t allow us to recognize a gem when we see one? Well, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the book; this extraordinary work of art, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.

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