I remember hearing about this novel a few years ago and wanting to read it, then forgetting all about it until donttrustthe_bea reviewed it earlier this year. This winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize is set in contemporary South Korea, and through a plot involving a missing person, writer Kyung-Sook Shin examines a clash of generations and dreams dashed. Family is family whether in Korea or elsewhere, and the fact is, we don’t always understand our parents (and vice versa). Too late we regret the things we said or neglected to do.
Park So-nyo, an elderly woman, has gone missing in Seoul, and her husband and four adult children are trying to find her. She was behind her husband in the bustling subway station when they became separated, and it is as if she vanished into thin air. The children disseminate flyers with her photo all over, and they hear from a few people who claim to have seen an old woman fitting her description except for the shoes. As the family members search, each has an opportunity to reflect on their relationship with Park So-nyo, behaviors of hers that were annoying or troubling, and regrets about things they said or never got around to doing for her. Through these reflections we see how complicated family relationships can be, especially when the older generation’s cultural experiences are so different. The parents have lived through war and poverty in the countryside, arranged marriages and unrealized dreams. Her children have gone to school and have city jobs and families there. How much does Park So-nyo’s family really know about her? Through each perspective, the reader gets pieces to put together, giving us a more complete pictures of this woman who could be both exasperating and selfless to a fault. Who was she before she met her husband; when she was young and a new mother; when her husband left her behind to manage a household of young children by herself? While it might be trite to say that we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until it’s gone, Kyung-Sook Shin turns this into a deeply moving and poignant story. Many readers will no doubt feel a connection to the children who get irritated with their parents, who worry about them as they age and fall ill, and who feel guilt about all the things they promised to do for them but never seem to get around to doing.
This could be a tough book to read if you have dealt with dementia in your family, but it does remind the reader that we all have lives that are never completely known or knowable even to those closest to us. As one of the children points out, their mother once had dreams, too, just as they all do. What were her dreams? What pains and losses, what joys and aspirations do they not even know about? This is a beautifully written story and I will probably think of it every time I am on the phone with my own mom, especially when I hear the same stories over and over.