Hazel McHaffie

Kyung-sook Shin

Valuing mothers

Thanks to all the recent adrenaline surges from thriller-reading, my current novel is starting to take shape. The old brain needed a swift kick-start it seems. The story (working title: Killing me Gently) includes a parent/child relationship where things go seriously wrong so I’m also looking at more reflective works, books that don’t have you biting your nails or fearing your own shadow, but nevertheless haunt your thoughts after you’ve turned the last page. What makes them work?

Please Look After MotherPlease Look after Mother by Kyung-sook Shin, an acclaimed South Korean author, is one I’ve just finished. It tells the story of So-nyo, an illiterate wife and taken-for-granted mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice and unremitting work. A few years earlier she’d suffered a stroke leaving her with terrible headaches, confused and vulnerable. When the story begins she’s travelling from her rural home to Seoul to see her grown up children, but somehow she gets separated from her husband when the doors of the packed train close behind him leaving her still standing on the platform. He gets off at the next station and returns to get her but she has vanished.

Her daughter and sons do their best to find her. Disappointingly little prospective happens in the story post-disappearance, but along the way places, events, chance comments, keep triggering retrospective memories of So-nyo and her life. The family see her differently now she’s gone, regretting the things they never said to her.

She’s always been there in the background, unremarkable, low-achieving, self-effacing. A simple impoverished South Korean housewife. Boiling octopus, sauteeing anchovies and toasting seaweed. Forcing a left-handed child to become right-handed with the simple expedient of punishing left-handed activity. Money always scarce.

When the malt fermented, the entire house smelled of it. Nobody liked that smell, but Mother said it was the smell of money. There was a house in the village where they made tofu, and when she brought them the fermented malt, they sold it to the brewery and gave the money to Mother. Mother put that money in a white bowl, stacked six or seven bowls on top of it, and placed it on top of the cabinets. The bowl was Mother’s bank.’

Her devotion to her children is not reciprocated. She is a wallpaper figure. They don’t even notice her periods of mental absence, or the obvious signs of extreme pain.

‘Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

But now, the longer she eludes them, the more her disappearance troubles them. And a deeper and more universal mystery is unravelled: ‘affection, exasperation, hope and guilt add up to love.’ They begin to appreciate just what a powerful influence this insignificant little woman has been in their lives:

‘When she was younger, Mother was a presence that got him to continue building his resolve as a man, as a human being.’

I must confess, this wasn’t a book I’d rave about. It left me unsatisfied somehow; I wanted more resolution. And I really really really dislike second person writing; it’s one of my all time pet hates. What’s more this particular example has the temerity to make the ‘you’ refer to a different person in different sections, compounding my aversion!

But that doesn’t stop me valuing the healthy message it conveys. And learning lessons for my own writing. We would all do well to revisit the sacrifices our mothers made for us. Willingly and without complaint. To ask ourselves, can I do for my family what she did for us? It’s all too easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted.

‘Before she went missing, you spent your days without thinking about her. When you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something, or to blame her or ignore her. Habit can be frightening thing. You spoke politely with others, but your words turned sullen towards (her).’

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

I doubt whether Please Look After Mother would feature highly on that jolly little bestseller-ometer I told you about a couple of weeks ago, and yet it’s contributing to the sum total of books which can encourage us to empathise with human beings and help to create a more civilised society. That’s worth more to me than whopping sales figures.

Strange how real life often throws up weird coincidences. By chance I was actually sitting next to a South Korean translator at a meal a few days ago. I had something relevant to talk about, thanks to Kyung-sook Shin.

 

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