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Blessed mother

Through voices of loved ones who’d taken her for granted a lost parent’s life and sacrifices are refracted

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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In Kyung-sook Shin’s fervent novel, “Please Look After Mom,’’ a confused old woman goes missing while visiting her adult children in Seoul. She is from a rural village and, therefore, from Korea’s past, a past that intrudes the moment her family meets to compose a flier for distribution around the city. “When you write July 24, 1938, as Mom’s birth date, your father corrects you, saying that she was born in 1936.’’ He explains that, “[b]ecause many children didn’t survive their first three months, people raised them for a few years before making it official.’’ Incidental details such as this one, unembellished and unsentimental, are the individual cells that form this novel’s beating heart. Without them “Please Look After Mom’’ would be nothing more than a dirge for a self-sacrificing mother. Instead it is a strange novel; as plain as its childish title suggests in many ways, but also sinuous and elusive.

Shin’s intention seems clear. She aims to re-create a life through fragmented family recollections. In doing so, she will also lead the reader on a switchback journey to the past, historical and personal. Memory is, of course, the only guide and the least reliable one. Chi-hon, the eldest daughter, observes this each time the family assembles. “You’d meet to discuss how to find Mom, and one of you would unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her in the past,’’ she observes, “The things that had been suppressed . . . became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked and banged out the door in a rage.’’

Chi-hon’s is one of four voices in the novel. A writer and academic, she is self-absorbed and emotional. “Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers,’’ Shin writes, and Chi-hon, tormented by guilt, realizes how little she knew — or cared to know — about Park So-nyo. That she was illiterate, for instance, and that she was heartbroken. “When Mom sank into sorrow after your brothers left, the only things you could do for her were to read your brothers’ letters out loud and to slip her responses into the mailbox on the way to school.’’ The novel’s language — so formal in its simplicity — bestows a grace and solemnity on childhood scenes that might otherwise be overwrought.

The novel’s second voice is that of Hyong-chol, the adored eldest son and now a struggling businessman who receives the first reliable clues to his mother’s movements. A stranger has seen a wandering woman whose eyes resemble those of the person on the flier. The disheveled vagrant was reportedly staring into a city office building, the one where Hyong-chol first worked. The woman is next sighted in the neighborhood where Hyong-chol bought his first house. As the trail that she leaves winds back into Hyong-chol’s past, his memories rush in to fill the void created by her sudden disappearance. He recalls, for example, his irritation when she insisted on returning immediately to the country after any city visit. “The only thing Mom had to do was work in the rice paddies or the fields,’’ he thought at the time, “that kind of work could wait until the following day.’’

He knows better now. In his mother’s life, reality was rooted in the land. And throughout the novel, the rhythms of agrarian life and labor that Shin deftly conveys have a subtle, cumulative power. With each description, the relentless tide of the past erodes the yielding ground of the present to reveal the contours of one woman’s life. We see it first through the eyes of her children and then through those of her husband, a frail man who fatefully let his wife’s hand slip from his own in a crowd. Once a drinker and a womanizer, he was, above all, an escapee from the horrors of war and the monotony of poverty. “The isolation you felt when it struck you that you would spend your entire life in this house,’’ Shin writes of him. “[W]hen that happened, you left home without a word and wandered the country. . . .You returned home because of the things your wife grew and raised.’’ Those things include children, but they are not the central characters in their father’s recollections or in their mother’s decline. In one of the novel’s most shocking scenes, we learn that it was the death of her husband’s little brother that first disordered the lost woman’s mind.

Finally Park So-nyo speaks for herself, in the haunting voice of one observing from a great distance not only her beloveds but also her young self. A revelation arrives quietly. “I remember the day you asked me what my name was,’’ she says. “You’re paved in my heart like an old road.’’ The memory is not of her husband but of another man. Yet this secret too, like so many in the novel, confounds our assumptions. Redemption arrives in the novel’s awkward conclusion, but truth remains the sole property of the lost.

Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts. She can be reached at ama1668@yahoo.com.

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM
By Kyung-sook Shin
Knopf, 237 pp., $24.95