On a Seoul Station subway platform, an aging country woman wanders away from her husband and disappears. Her disappearance fills her family with recriminations and self-doubt. How could they have assumed Mom was healthy when they'd find her clutching her head against the pain that "jabbed at her soul"? How could they not have known she was illiterate through much of her life and now -- given her mental state -- was probably unable to read the fliers advertising her disappearance? When she devoted her life to them, how could her husband and children not have loved as deeply in return?
When strangers spot her wandering the streets, the family's anxiety grows. One stranger recognizes the "honest and loyal" eyes of the woman on the flier. Another remembers seeing Mother, Park So-nyo, age 69, outside the office where her son once worked. In each report, she's wearing blue plastic sandals despite the cold. She has "a cut on her foot ... perhaps because she'd walked so far." This was yesterday or a week or a month ago when people noticed the old woman, who looked like a beggar.
Kyung-sook Shin weaves her lovely tale from the recollections of a daughter, a son, a husband, and of Mother herself. In time, the old woman joins the spirit world to observe the turmoil her leaving has caused. Whereas her city-dwelling children had encouraged her to change, to modernize her views, she has remained faithful to the old ideals of sacrifice for others, of frugality, of respect for one's ancestors. Chi-hon, her writer/daughter, recalls how, as the observance of ancestral rites neared, Mother would remove the doors from the house, wash them, then paste "new, half-translucent mulberry paper onto the doors." Her husband remembers how she tended "the family graveyard and took care of the ancestral rites each season," responsibilities he avoided.
This is not to say Wife and Mother weren't without failings. However, because she has remained true to her beliefs, true to ancient custom, her passing seems blessed by its quietness. She leaves her family to discover the meaning of their loss. When the ancestral rites of Full Moon Harvest come again, the family of Park So-nyo will remember to honor Mother.
This heartbreaking, yet joyous novel is Kyung-sook Shin's first to appear in English. You could say it marks a first, loving gift to readers of English. Her publisher's press release notes that the book "has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the author's native South Korea." Understandably so. "Please Look After Mom," especially its magical, transcendent ending, lifts the spirit as only the best writing can do.
Anthony Bukoski, the author of five short-story collections, lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.