Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is a Korean million-selling novel, due to be published in twenty-three countries and short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It’s a story in five parts, told from the points of view of the titular mother’s family members after her disappearance on a visit to Seoul to see her family. She becomes separated from her husband at the city’s main train station and, despite the family’s best efforts, cannot be found.
However, the novel is less about the search for the mother than a reevaluation of her life, seen through the eyes of the people who have taken her for granted for so long. As they begin to share stories, they realise that the picture they had of her is deeply flawed, and each of them realises just how much she meant to them – if only too late. It’s also an allegory for the situation of the nation as a whole, one which may have sacrificed its past in order to ensure a prosperous future.
Before you start thinking that this is a wonderfully heart-warming story though, one you might want to look for on your local library database, let me give you a piece of advice – don’t bother. Please Look After Mother is a piece of trashy kitsch, a giant guilt-trip of a book which has probably sold its million copies simply by virtue of making middle-class Koreans uncomfortable about not having called Mum much recently. I am amazed that it made it onto the Man Asian short-list (ahead of Murakami’s 1Q84!), and I am crossing my fingers that the panel aren’t short-sighted enough to actually give it the prize.
So what’s wrong with it? To be honest, there isn’t much right with it, but I’ll list a few of my concerns. The way the book is structured, using first-, second- and third-person viewpoints, is gimmicky and pointless – the idea adds nothing to the story being told. The actual story itself is repetitive: once you get past the first section, it’s the same old story of whining, sibling squabbles and hand-wringing. The characters are wooden and unlikeable, especially the men (which could be a cultural thing or merely bad writing), and shout at each other at the drop of a hat. I think you’ve got the idea by now that I’m not a huge fan.
What was probably a very average novel in the original though has undoubtedly been made worse by a sub-par translation. Please Look After Mother reads like a clichéd translated novel, clumsy, with unnatural sentence structure and over-formal language (meant to reflect the original Korean, no doubt, but out of place in a translation). There were also several errors with pronouns, forcing me to go back and find out who exactly was supposed to be talking to whom, and an obsession with repeated relative clauses, which just looked strange in English.
It’s sad because the idea behind the novel is a good one. The premise of an old woman’s disappearance serving as a reflection on the price paid for the rapid societal progress South Korea has made over the past few decades is a very interesting one. We get to see how Seoul has developed in the space of a generation, and the way in which the population has shifted from a rural to a mainly urban one in a matter of decades. However, Shin’s treatment of these issues is superficial and fleeting, as is her attempt to portray the effect of the mother’s disappearance on her family. Sadly, I really didn’t care about any of them.
As I am nothing but fair though, I’ll finish by pointing you in the direction of a few more reviews. The team behind the Shadow Man Asian Prize have nearly all reviewed this book, so why not have a look at what they had to say? I’m sure it’ll be more entertaining than the book itself…