"The Color of Earth" had proved to be such a disappointment that I decided I needed another Korean novel. At first, I was going to read "The Surrendered"--or rather listen to it as an audio book, but the narrator sounded like a brash American male, which was not at all what I was expecting. Then, too, though "The Surrendered" had been my original choice for my 52 countries challenge, I had never been completely satisfied, as I view Chang-rae Lee, who immigrated to the United States when he was three, as a Korean-American, and my goal was to read as many native-born (and raised) authors as possible. I also realized that I hadn't yet read a novel set in a modern Asian culture, where the characters must come to grips with the enormous societal and technological changes that ensue, and Lee's novel didn't completely fit the bill. So I decided to switch to "Please Look After Mom", since I had seen it everywhere in US bookstores a few years ago, and I knew it had been a big best-seller in South Korea. The second-person switching narration did make me hesitate, but I found it in my library's new audio books shelf, so I figured that it must be some sort of sign.
"Please Look After Mom" tells the story of So-Nyo (whom, incidentally, is almost never referred to by name but only by her position in the family, rather like Ehwa's mother in the "Color" series) and the reaction by four family members as they search for her after So-Nyo, afflicted by Alzheimer's disease and a host of various other ailments, wanders off from her husband in Seoul's enormous central station. (I've never been to Seoul, but after living in the Tokyo area for a couple of years, I could see how someone could get hopeless lost in a matter of moments). There's no smooth progress of narration, so it was slightly difficult to get my bearings when the speakers shifted as another part began--who was this "you" this time?--but it wasn't as confusing as I feared, nor as irritating, for that matter. I understand why Shin picked this unusual method of narration. It was to completely involve the reader in the story, to engender a specific emotional reaction--of guilt to be exact--and that was my problem with this book.
There were some things I liked about "Please Look After Mom." Of course, it was fascinating to read about the enormous cultural gulf between the parents and the children. The parents come from a time of outdoor plumbing, large families, and agricultural self-reliance and where, and illiteracy, particularly amongst women, is omnipresent. They must deal with an era of electronic toilets and where a two child family is unusual, and a three-child family downright strange. (In my own Japan days I saw exactly one three-child family in the Tokyo area; it was almost jarring to see a father having to carry one of the children.) The children, too, are dealing with an accelerating progress within their own time, and one of the most interesting parts of the book was when the elder son returns to his old neighborhood where his mother has been sighted, and what little he recognizes has been priced out of reach. I loved reading about Mom's endless pickling and preparation of meals, and how she would wipe down the inside and outside of the kimchee jars every day. It was soothing, like reading a copy of "Mother Earth" magazine. And I always appreciate being reminded once again of the inroads that Christianity has made upon Korean culture, as Mom's devotion to the Catholic Church is touched upon again and again. (It is an aspect of Korean culture that many outsiders don't realize, but since I went to school in Rome with Korean nuns and in Germany with a Korean Protestant minister's wife, I am perhaps a bit more aware of this facet of modern Korean life.). And Mom's relationships with her two daughters--the elder, a strong-willed writer, and the younger, a brilliant student and pharmacist who was decided to stay home with her children and thus has disappointed her mother, are complex and well done.
But, as I said, there's a problem. A two-fold one, in fact. The first is Mom. She's perfect--never loses her temper, puts up with her husband's abandonment, never complains. She is so nurturing that, as one other reviewer on GR says, you expect flowers to spring up at her heels when she walks. Think of Amy Adams as the princess in "Enchanted", or Snow White singing at the well, and you get an idea of how gratingly wonderful she is. Or rather would be if she had a bit more energy to her, instead of a sighing well-just-don't-worry-about-me cloud floating around her poor put-upon head. It becomes tedious. In the author's eagerness to show how everyone has put upon poor old mom, and exploited her, she makes her a saint that doesn't come to life. Ironically, she ends up exploiting her own character, if such a thing is possible.
I'm using the metaphor of a saint very deliberately, for Shin's eagerness to drive her point across is the second problem, and Shin's finger-wagging hectoring reaches a crescendo and becomes unbearable towards the end of the book. The last section is dreadful--maudlin and once again, like "The Color of Earth", unutterably cloying. I won't give it away, but suffice to say I saw the denouement coming from way back, though I couldn't believe that any author could try to get away with such a ham-fisted and obvious ending. (Note: yes, she could.) The ending went south in a spectacular way that I have almost never experienced as a reader; she ruined the book.
I can understand why this book was such a big hit in South Korea. As in Japan, a culture based upon a reverence for the elderly has come uunder enormous strain from the pressures of modern life. I am sure it resonated deeply, but that doesn't make it a particularly good novel.
Please Look After Mon- Chi-Young Kim, translator
Two asides: I found the narrator of the father rather distracting; he sounded like an even more weary Nick Nolte. He was good, but disconcerting.
The second: South Korea, was the first country since the Antipodes where none of my authors was persecuted or spent time in jail, or at least was an ethnic outsider. I am now moving on to Japan, where the author of my book, Murasaki Shikibu, was the consummate insider--probably more so than any other book in my challenge.