I remember in one of my high school English classes, one of my classmates wanting to write her short story in second person (i.e. “You went to the store. You bought an avacado.”). My teacher tried to warn her away, saying that it was very difficult to write well in the second person, but she was determined to stick with it. I don’t know how my classmate’s story turned out, but I thought of her while reading Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin.
Please Look After Mom is the story of a family whose mother has gone missing, told from the perspective of several members of the family. In the first section, ‘you’ are the eldest daughter, searching for your mother and feeling guilty for not keeping in better touch with her. In that section, I became comfortable with the second person perspective and thought it worked pretty well, drawing me as the reader into the story. What I found strange was that after a section about the oldest son (narrated in third person), the third section is again in third person, but this time ‘you’ are the husband/father of the family. Having already identified myself as the oldest daughter, I found it hard to switch gears and think of myself as the husband. Though it is also possible that as a female, I just found it easier to think of myself as the daughter than as the father.
It is easy to criticize this book, for its shifts in perspective, for its endless melodrama and guilt over how Mom should have been treated better, and for its somewhat ridiculous ending, but despite all that, I came away from the book having really enjoyed it. I thought a lot of the writing was good. And there is so much truth to the fact that mothers tend to be underappreciated (Hi Mom!) and that children tend to see their mother primarily in terms of her relationship with them rather than as an independent human being. So even though that point may be reiterated a few too many times in the book, it is compelling and authentic. I also enjoyed the slow revealing of more and more of the family’s history. (And like many reviewers have commented, reading the book did in fact make me feel like I ought to call my mother.)
I wonder how much Please Look After Mom reflects cultural differences in style. My guesses here are based on very little information- seeing a few episodes of a South Korean TV show and watching Korean music videos at my local Korean restaurant. (By the way, if you’ve never tried bi bim bop, I highly recommend that you rectify that situation as soon as possible. I like ‘dol sot’ bi bim bop, the version where is served in a hot stone bowl, the best.) Based on that very small amount of information, I feel like maybe the repetition of highly expressed emotions might be more standard in South Korean narratives, to a degree that is considered poor taste in poor taste in Western narratives. I’d be interested to hear whether people who know more than me would agree with this.
One thing that the book conveys very vividly is how quickly life in South Korea has changed over the course of two generations. The parents of the family are rural farmers, the mother doesn’t know how to read, and when the children were young, in the years after the war, their parents could barely manage to feed them. As adults, the children have all moved to Seoul and are real estate agents and pharmacists (and a best-selling author). The degree of contrast between generations might be a bit more than average, but from what I’ve read about South Korea, this amount of change between two generations is realistic. The generational changes also lead to some of the distance between Mom and her children. I don’t think the point of the book is that progress is bad though, just that sometimes it can be hard. The difficulty gets amplified when change comes so quickly.