The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for modern ailments


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Taking your mother for granted

Cure: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

The capacity for mothers to give unceasingly to their offspring – despite getting little but dirty laundry in return – is one of the wonders of the human race. And though we all know our mothers sacrifice their needs to ours, we rarely show them we've noticed. If you're lucky enough to still have a mother around to check behind your ears, don't respond with irritation. Instead, reach for Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, the story of five grown children who lose their mother – quite literally – and find themselves besieged with regret. You won't let their failure become yours.

Growing up in rural South Korea, the 'Mom' that Chi-hon and her siblings know is always in the kitchen, processing endless bottled plums, hulled rice and kimchi. One by one, they leave home and move to the city, and expect their parents to visit them in Seoul instead. Mom comes laden with red-bean porridge and other home-cooked morsels which they take with embarrassment, shove in the freezer, and forget.

On what proves to be her last visit, Mom is, as usual, trailing several paces behind her impatient husband. When the train doors close between them, she's marooned – because she can't read or write herself, and has never sought help for her dementia. The children do everything they can to find her: hand out flyers, offer a reward. But as the days turn to weeks, they are left with their guilty memories. Why, when her mother took her shopping, hadn't Chi-hon at least tried on that frilly dress? Why, when her mother asked about her life as a writer, had she snapped at her?

Gradually a picture of a different Mom emerges – one who cared for other children once hers had left, and found a way to read Chi-hon's books. They barely knew her at all. It may be too late for these siblings to show their mother appreciation, but we hope it's not too late for you.