The story takes place in South Korea, set in Seoul and in the rural countryside outside of Seoul. It follows the family of So-Nyo, the elderly matriarch who has gone missing after becoming separated from her husband at a Seoul subway station. We are introduced to her husband and her children in the events that follow, all of whom learn throughout the course of this novel that not only did they not appreciate So-Nyo as a wife and mother, they uncover heartbreaking secrets she withheld from the family so not to be a burden.
Narrated in the second person (you), Shin is poignant in her writing. She is addressing not only the family, but also the reader, as she details the struggles So-Nyo endured in silence. Each chapter is dedicated to a different member of the family; the ones I found most difficult to get through were those of the husband and the eldest daughter. I found myself crying several times while reading this book, which is something that has never happened to me before. As someone with elderly grandparents, it was easy to put myself in the shoes of So-Nyo’s children, and how I would be losing my mind if one of my grandparents disappeared without a trace. There is a difference in losing someone in the sense of death versus losing someone in the physical, not being able to properly mourn the loss or lay them to rest, that is especially tragic.
Shin perfectly uses the themes of motherhood, family, maternal sacrifice and the role of women in society to tie together this story as one that is universally relatable. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what language you may speak, or what cultural traditions you may practice, the loss of a parent is a heartbreak that is no easy feat to bear. This has become one of my favorite books, and I have recommended it to several friends and family members as a must read.