One of the greatest words in the Korean language is Ajuma. In English it means old lady, but anyone who has ever been to Korea knows that an Ajuma is a force to be reckoned with.
She is the woman selling cabbage at the side of the road who then walks miles loaded down with heavy bundles of fresh vegetables, chili peppers, and roots to take home to prepare meals for her family.
She is tough and resilient with a huge heart, kind eyes, generous, and a virtual saint, but you don’t even want to think about going for her seat on the subway in Seoul. She would not think twice about using her elbows if you got in her way.
Please Look After Mom begins with the mysterious disappearance of one such woman, a fierce Ajuma who has traveled to Seoul to visit her children and; somehow got separated and lost from her husband, who was walking ahead of her at the busy train station.
The story is told in second-person narration in several sections of the novel. This is uncommon but on reflection it works well as the story unfolds. When Chi-hon, the daughter of the missing woman tells her story, it becomes clear that she took her mother for granted and because the word you is often used in an accusatory manner, the second-person narrative technique reinforces the narrator’s feelings of self-blame.
While the family looks for their lost mother they reflect on the sacrifices that she made on their behalf; and how they rarely demonstrated their appreciation for the woman whose life revolved around making other people happy.
Chi-hon is a writer; this makes her mother, who grew up in the country in a different era illiterate, very proud. Chin-hon’s story of her mother buying her a book without even asking the price while she haggles for everything else, and later stories of buying another daughter a desk to study at and beating her son to force him to eat food made by his father’s mistress so he can focus in class come up as the family reflects on the number of ways that they took their mother for granted. As their mother becomes older, the children are busy and don’t realize how she is deteriorating. There is also a lot that they don’t know about their mother in general.
The children in the novel represent a new generation and the changing role of the woman in the workforce in South Korea. The contrast between old and new in South Korea is also seen in the mother’s day-to-day life in the country and the lives of her children, who represent the future.
The novel perfectly combines universal themes of love and loss, family dynamics, gender equality, tradition, and charity with the rich Korean culture and values which make Please Look After Mom a great literary masterpiece.
Please Look After Mom is bestselling Korean author Kyung-sook Shin’s first book to be transated in English. It will be published in nineteen countries around the world.
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