Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Her Fiction, Modern South Korea Lives and Breathes

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Her Fiction, Modern South Korea Lives and Breathes

Article excerpt

The prize-winning novel "Please Look Afer Mom" is part of a body of work over three decades that has set its author apart as one of the best chroniclers of modern life in her country.

Like so many South Korean parents at the time, Shin Kyung-sook's mother saw education as her daughter's best chance of escaping poverty and back-breaking work in the rice fields. So in 1978, she took her 15-year-old daughter to Seoul, where Ms. Shin would lie about her age to get a factory job while attending high school at night to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist.

Seoul-bound trains at the time, like the one mother and daughter boarded that night, picked up many rural young people like Ms. Shin along the way -- part of the migration that fueled South Korea's industrialization but forever changed its traditional family life.

It is that social upheaval that Ms. Shin evoked in her most famous novel to date, "Please Look After Mom," which earned her the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and a commercial success attained by few other Korean writers (sales in South Korea at two million and climbing, and publication in 19 other countries). That book and a more recent one, "I Will Be Right There," about friendship and love and set in the country's political turmoil of the 1980s, are part of a body of work over three decades that has set Ms. Shin apart as one of the best chroniclers of modern South Korea.

"In her novels, readers have the chance to pause and reflect upon the other side of their society's breakneck race for economic growth, what they have lost in that pursuit, and upon people who were left behind in the mad rush," said Shin Soo-jeong, a professor of Korean literature at Myongji University in Seoul.

In "Please Look After Mom," an elderly woman whose children have left the hardscrabble life of the family farm disappears during a trip to visit them in Seoul. Reviewers have called her disappearance a metaphor for the profound sense of loss in a society that hurtled from an agrarian dictatorship to an industrialized democracy within a single and often tumultuous generation.

That feeling has not overwhelmed South Koreans' pride in their country's accomplishments, notably its rise from poverty to the world's 13th-largest economy. But it taps into a growing unease over some of the costs of that success, especially a widening gap between rich and poor and a generation of elderly people left largely to fend for themselves.

Until a generation ago, at least one adult child -- usually the eldest son and his family -- would live with aging parents until their deaths. Now, a growing number of older people live alone in their rural homes or in the nursing facilities that are springing up across the country. For them, old-age security meant not pensions or personal savings, but investing in the education of their children in the expectation that the children would prosper and eventually care for them. But now, with their offspring abandoning them for jobs in the cities, that traditional social contract of reciprocity and the family bonds underpinning it are fast weakening, and for many elderly people, the safety net is gone.

The guilt of children who benefited from their parents' drive to give them a better life is palpable in "Please Look After Mom," when the city-dwelling daughter realizes that she and her siblings have been so detached they did not even realize that their mother was so ill that she could barely feed herself or their neglectful father. …

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