book review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After MomTranslated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The basics: Kyong-Sook Shin is a famous Korean writer who has won several awards internationally. Please Look After Mom is her first book to be translated into English. It tells the story of a mother who goes missing one afternoon in a crowded Seoul subway station. The story is told in the voices of her children and husband as they search for her, remember her and face their regrets.

My thoughts: Please Look After Mom opens in a somewhat bracing way. The reader is addressed as "you," which is jarring, but in a good way. Still, I scrambled for a few pages to get my bearings in the scene, the country, the family, and the character. As the novel moved into different sections, the narrator's language shifted to first-person. It was an interesting narrative tool, and I appreciated the boldness of Shin to force the reader to figure out which characters was now telling his or her story. There was no road map to this novel, just as mother had no road map when she got lost.

I can't recall reading any other books set in Seoul, and I enjoyed this glimpse into the customs of the city and its surrounding country. Mostly, however, I enjoyed the story of the first narrator, the famous Korean novelist daughter. I was thrilled to meet her first, as I cheered when she reappeared during other narratives. Her story was incredibly moving, and I found myself easily relating to her life.

Please Look After Mom flowed seamlessly in each section between memories and the present. At times it read almost like a thriller. It was easy to get caught up in the search for mom until you realize it's just as interesting to see and understand mom through the different views of her family.

Favorite passage: "Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them."

The verdict: Please Look After Mom is a haunting and deceivingly simple novel about family and regret that questions how well we really ever know one another. It's a shame more of Kyung-Sook Shin's work hasn't been translated into English, but I hope more will be.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: April 5, 2011
Source: I checked it out from the library

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  1. I've seen a few reviews on this one, and like yours, they were all positive.

    Thanks to bloggers like yourself, I've added this to my wishlist:)

  2. I just finished this book a couple of weeks ago, but haven't posted my review yet. I loved this book and found it haunting and very, very sad. It was such a different type of book, both in subject matter and execution, but I found myself glued to the page with it. Fantastic review here today. I a, glad you also loved it!

  3. Oooh -- haven't heard of this one but I'm intensely curious about it -- both for the plot and unusual narrative style.

  4. I keep hearing things - really positive things - about this book. I need to pick it up soon!

    Great review :)

  5. I've seen this book around but never read a blog review...glad to see you liked it. Adding to my TBR list!

  6. This sounds fascinating. I have a brother living in Seoul, which makes it pique my interest even more. Putting it on my list. :)

  7. The second person narration always throws me off, so I will need some time to get used to this as well. But I've heard so much about this book - and I would love to read it.

  8. I thought Please Look After Mom was interesting and contextually relevant, but not a particularly good novel. I had too much difficulty with the writing style (the jarring switches of second person between sections were particularly uncomfortable and awkward) and found that the plot was a little too vague to actually fully understand. It felt sometimes like the author wanted everything to be vague, just so that readers would be able to easily relate to the story... a good book, but not great (in my opinion).

  9. I am always curious (dubious?) concerning translated work. As we see with the classics that still garner attention from the intellectual community, translation is a hugely personal experience. If the translator has not experienced the culture or the motives of the author... So many facets make the process of translation, I am always wrestling with my feelings on the end product.
    Many books translated from Asian countries tend to contain "simple" language and just in my understanding of, say, Japanese culture, there are layers upon layers of implication with every movement. It is hard for me to believe that the language is devoid of this depth.
    Food for thought!


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