Sometimes you read two books at random and discover a theme. And so it was with these two books – time for a double review!
Travelling in A Strange Land by David Park and Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim, are moving stories about parenthood but told from different points of view.
Please Look After Mother is an exquisite novel set in Seoul. A family searches for their mother, who has gone missing. We hear from each of her (now adult) children, who realise the sacrifices their mother made and piece together her life.
The writing is crystal-clear – thoughtful but fluid. Shin gives her characters space to reflect, but on each page there’s a tension or event to propel the reader forward. It’s infused with South Korean culture yet there’s so much we can all relate to (especially regarding family dynamics and obligations).
In Travelling in a Strange Land a man called Tom drives through snowy roads, thinking about his son and wondering whether he has been a good father.
Park’s strong, assured writing propels us firmly onwards even in slower parts. At first the endless snow, with Tom circling around the issue but not coming to the point, frustrated me, but it mimics his state of mind, which is frozen; he looks at the snow rather than confront his memories.
It picks up and becomes a very moving, honest portrayal of parents at a loss over their son. Towards the end, the poetic writing soars and the emotions of the father feel so real it’s heart-breaking.
As to parenthood, in both cases they have been good parents: the irony, or perhaps the evidence, of this is that their children have taken them for granted.
Both books have beautiful, heart-breaking, redemptive endings. Their major achievement is that the final scenes are sublime and dramatic, but it’s earned – it feels true to the characters.
I won’t give away the stories, but in both, the characters reach a point between sacrificing everything for others and being selfish, and land on compassion. It feels hopeful, I think because it taps into something human in all of us: we’re not perfect when it comes to caring for our families and others, but our sense of compassion will prevail.
It’s rare to find two books with such memorable endings – I recommend both.
Have you read either of these (or other books with inadvertant themes)? Let me know what you think!