A sort of antidote to Amy Chua’s churlish take on motherhood, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from earlier this year, Please Look After Mom, by leading South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin, has sold over a million copies since its release in 2008. While Chua, a Yale law prof, stresses the toughness of the stereotypical Asian mother, Shin’s novel probes the emotional investment and selflessness of a woman who gives so much of herself that she’s nearly obliterated: “Please take care of yourself,” she tells her son. “That is the only thing your mother wishes from you.” It’s an erasure of self that threatens to take with it even the mother’s secret life—a life as rich as it is feverishly hidden.
The tale of a rural woman in her 60s who mysteriously disappears at busy Seoul Station during a visit to her upwardly mobile children, Please Look After Mom is at once a masterpiece of sentimentality and the story of South Korea’s sometimes painful transition from an agrarian, war-torn nation to an economic powerhouse. It is at turns haunting, with an almost supernatural edge, and prosaic, with deliciously endless descriptions of red peppers ground in mortars for kimchi, salt cabbage and fermented soybean cake.
Told over five chapters using four different voices—one of them a middle-aged female novelist who holds more than just a passing resemblance to Shin herself—the novel distills its missing central character down to a series of warm, sometimes heart-wrenching vignettes, coloured by the guilt of the shifting narrators. As her children scour the streets of Seoul for their inexplicably vanished mother, they begin hearing reports of a confused, dishevelled woman wearing the same blue sandals she’d worn years before, suffering the same old wound to her foot, walking aimlessly through their old Seoul neighbourhoods. By the end of the book, in a masterful combination of South Korean folk tale and Western spirituality, an epiphany experienced by the novelist daughter completes Mom’s transformation entirely.