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Memories of a missing mom

by Jeff Kingston

This is an intimate drama brimming with sadness, suspense and surprises as the search for a missing mother in Seoul gives us glimpses into the heart of a family.

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM, by Kyung-Sook Shin. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, 256 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

The novel is presented in the voices of the writer daughter, the businessman son, the housewife daughter, the abject father and the missing mom.

On a visit to the big city from their home in the countryside, the mom is separated from her husband at the bustling Seoul station and vanishes. The family mounts a search, distributing leaflets, offering a reward and scouring neighborhoods where there are reported sightings.

Amid this crisis we learn a great deal about changing norms, eroding family ties and fading rural rhythms in contemporary Korea. Family connections, and disconnections, are vividly portrayed through shared memories of a mother who meant more to everyone than anyone realized or expressed while she was around. She was the archetypal mom, always there for her children, but underappreciated and poorly understood.

The different glimpses into family and the absent matriarch are moving and shed light on a society in rapid transition and how people are navigating the crosscurrents.

The mother raised the family in a rural area with a shiftless and faithless husband, an arranged marriage that produced children, but little love or understanding. Here mom is endlessly working, haggling and scraping to makes ends meet and feed her children. Knowing she cannot rely on her husband, she undertakes various ventures to earn extra cash, but she is never far from the hearth.

One narrator says: “Your mom never paid full price for anything. Most things she did herself, so her hands were always busy. She sewed and knitted, and she tilled fields without rest. Mom’s labor showed that nothing would be reaped if the seeds were not sown.”

It is only when mom disappears that everyone in their own way acknowledges how they took her for granted, each dealing with resentment, guilt and recriminations as they search in vain. The son is overwhelmed with guilt because he feels he let her down and lost because she was the only one who always believed in him. The husband also regrets all that was left unsaid and much that was uttered in impatient exasperation.

The children and husband also search and share their memories to understand who mother was, discovering so much they didn’t realize about her. Gradually readers piece together a composite picture of a complex woman who was embarrassed by, and tried to hide, her illiteracy. She was also a woman who longed for more, one who could not cross the bridge to an illicit affair, but still treasured her unrequited love. Her personal tragedy is slowly excavated, an unfolding revelation that hits with haunting power as we learn what she stoically endured in quiet pain.

The mother once calls the writer daughter a bitch to her face, but is also immensely proud of her success, asking others to read her novels to her, something discovered only belatedly.

The daughter brims with resentments about slights and favoritism toward her older brother, but comes to realize how little she understood her mother. Always lashing out at the matriarch who raised and supported her as best she could, helping her enter the wider world of Seoul and tap its opportunities, the daughter finally grasps just how clueless and self-absorbed she has been. She asks her siblings if they think kitchen-bound mom was happy, a question that forces everyone to brood over their neglect; it seemed like asking if a tree likes being in the yard.

She accuses herself: “You had never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom. You never wondered, Did Mom like being in the kitchen?”

Asking the same question to an elegant older gentleman about his deceased mother, she winces when he dismisses the question as if it was one that only a spoiled youngster could imagine appropriate; in his view, one she respects if not accepts, old-fashioned moms were a totally different breed from younger women and cannot be judged or understood by contemporary norms or trite questions.

The grownup children had been discomfited when their mother showed up in their new lives, a relic of their former selves they had pushed way into the background. Mom, wearing her dowdy farming clothes, bulging with parcels of food, offering homespun wisdom while doting on her successful urbanized brood represents the inexhaustible capacity of the past to embarrass and indict the modern. They ruminate, too late, over all she has passed on to them and understand how their success owed and meant so much to her.

This is a hypnotic and powerful novel of loss, well translated and one to savor, only marred by a tacked-on ending in the Vatican that seems inappropriate but forgivable given how good the rest is.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.