• Friday, February 24th, 2017

Shin Kyung-Sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup, north Jeolla Province, in southern South Korea, from humble farmer parents who lacked the financial means to send her to high school. She was the fourth child and eldest daughter of six. At the age of sixteen Shin joined her elder brother in Seoul where she worked at an electronics plant while at the same time attending evening classes.

After graduating as a creative writing major from the Seoul Institute Of Arts, Shin published her first novella “Winter’s Fable” which earned her the 1985 Literary Joongang Newcomer’s Prize.

Shin’s work consists of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has received several literary prizes and awards and is the most acclaimed writer in South Korea. Please Look After Mother has been translated into several languages and won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was originally published in Korean in 2008 and in English in 2011.

Presently Shin divides her timetable between Seoul and New York City, where she teaches as a visiting scholar at Colombia University.

Please Look After Mother starts with the one week missing, sixty-nine-year-old illiterate, hard-working peasant, Park So-nyo, who was with her husband on their way to visit their children in Seoul. She is separated from her husband, who is walking fast, ahead of her as usual, in Seoul’s crowded central railway station. The distracted husband boards the congested train in a hurry while his wife is left behind on the platform.

Park So-nyo’s husband and her four adult children, two sons and two daughters, undertake a thorough search to try to find her. The businessman, Hyong-chol, is the eldest son and the successful novelist, Chi-hon, is the eldest daughter.

Park So-nyo’s disappearance leads to a strange mixed feeling in her family, realising that they didn’t really know her well and took her for granted all these years without showing her any gratitude and without ever devoting time to appreciate the love and sacrifice of this kind, affable and generous woman.

Please Look After Mother, Shin’s sixth novel and her first to be translated into other languages, is a short, powerful and heavily emotional book. It is divided into four chapters plus an epilogue. The first chapter concerns the daughter, Chi-hon and the third chapter belongs to Park So-nyo’s husband. The narration in these two chapters is in the uncommon second-person style which lends the novel a note of personal intimacy as well as a general accusatory tone.

In the second chapter, Hyong-chol, Park So-nyo’s favourite child is the focal point. And by a twist from the author, in the fourth chapter the mother reappears as a ghost – suggesting that she has already passed away – to narrate her side of the story which is the most evocative and lyrical part of the novel.

In the poignant, melodramatic, short epilogue, Shin leads the story through a spiritual path by taking the maternal love and devotion to a higher level, turning it into self-martyrdom worthy of sanctity. The author goes to the extent of comparing Park So-nyo to the virgin Mary in Michael Angelo’s “Pietà” and the novel ends with Chi-hon praying and pleading to the virgin Mary to look after her mother.

Each chapter conveys the thoughts, the feelings, the guilt and remorse of each one of the characters. The different narrations as they unravel gradually, constitute the multifaceted story that forms the full image of the matriarch’s character and illustrates the veracity and inner self of each member of the family.

The reader learns that Park So-nyo is a kind-hearted, tough, resilient and determined, solitary woman who is averse to pity and therefore suffers silently from brain cancer, while her family is too busy ignoring the symptoms of her debilitating, dangerous disease. And although poor and in fragile health, she continues to devote herself to helping the less fortunate than her. She gives assistance and comfort to the destitute Un’gyu, his sick wife and to his newly born baby. She is also a donor and a helper in the local orphanage as well as a devoted, self sacrificing mother and wife.

In Please Look After My Mother, the author tackles an important subject by placing in juxtaposition rural and urban life and their effects on societies by creating an unbalance with the increasing social shift from one to the other : a common preoccupation world-wide, not only in South Korea. Young people from the countryside migrating to the big cities, whether they seek education or work in the hope of a better life. They end up settling in the big city leaving their parents behind and nobody to look after the parents or to take over the agricultural land.

In one of her interviews Shin says about her novel: “We’ve taken it for granted that our mothers are always here beside us and devoted to us. We think they are born to be mothers. But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book. My mother is the energy behind my writings.”

How far back can we remember a human being? And how far does the memory of a mother last? Please Look After Mother is a moving, gloomy story, a hymn and a tribute to maternal love and a contemplation on motherhood. A good insight into Korean culture, values, food, festivals and political changes.

• Friday, January 27th, 2017

Stephanie Cowell was born to a family of artists in New York City, USA and still lives there. She is married to the poet and reiki practitioner, Russell Clay, and they have two adult sons.

Since an early age, Cowell “fell in love with Mozart, Shakespeare and historical fiction”. She wrote short novels in her teens which were never published and in her twenties twice won prizes in national story contests. As Cowell decided to become a classical singer, she abandoned writing in order to train her voice as a lyric coloratura soprano for classical singing. She sang in many operas and formed a chamber opera company.

When Cowell decided to go back to writing she chose historical novels, first a trilogy about an actor and a seventeenth century physician called Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest, the first part of which was published in 1993. She then wrote The Players: a novel about the young William Shakespeare, published in1997, followed by Marrying Mozart in 2004 and then Claude And Camille: A novel about Claude Monet and his first wife, Camille Doncieux, published in 2010.

Marrying Mozart, Cowell’s fourth novel, was created from the years when Cowell was singing Mozart operas. It brings together her writing and musical skills as well as her love for the world renowned great composer. The novel was translated into several languages and was also a big success in its stage production when it premiered in New York city in December 2012 with Mozart’s music and Opera Moderne and Dicapo Opera.

Stephanie Cowell, best known for writing historical fiction, has said about her novels: “We find facts in history books; we find living truth in historical fiction… It is because I love some periods of the past and certain people who lived within them so much that I became a writer.”

Inspired by real events, Stephanie Cowell’s captivating novel which successfully intertwines facts with fiction, takes us to the classical music world of eighteenth century Europe and brings it vibrantly to life by including certain customs, several secondary characters as well as some of the daily domestic life of the time. Like the Weber sisters who take turns every morning emptying the chamber pots or go four floors down to get the milk from the milk seller.

The novel begins in 1842 when Vincent Novello, an English biographer visiting Austria, takes the opportunity to visit Sophie, the youngest of the Weber sisters and the only surviving member of the Weber family. Sophie who was eleven years old when she first met Mozart on a Thursday evening at her parent’s home in Mannheim long ago, is now in her mid-seventies. At the biographer’s request, Sophie narrates events going back over the previous sixty years.

Sophie’s story starts in 1777 in Mannheim, Germany. Fridolin Weber, the father and family provider, manages with great difficulty to make a living for his large family. He is a violinist, music copyist and teacher. With his wife, Maria Caecilia, and his four daughters, Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze and Sophie, they have the habit of receiving their musician friends in their confined, decrepit apartment every Thursday evening. Among the invitees is a twenty one year old Austrian musician called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, accompanied by his supportive, cherished mother Anna Maria, who join the party for the first time.

The young, highly talented Mozart who is no longer the five-year-old prodigy child, is now touring Europe with his mother, looking for work as a composer in order to support himself, his father Leopold, his mother and his only sister Maria Anna (nicknamed, Nannerl). Mozart’s greatest wish is to be given the opportunity to compose operas for a living and not to follow in his father’s footsteps by working as church musician for the unpleasant, condescending archbishop of Salzburg.

At the Webers’ Thursday soirée, Mozart is introduced to the four Weber daughters: the rebellious, stubborn Josefa with a full voice, is the eldest. The second is the beautiful and gifted soprano, Aloysia. The two eldest sisters have in common their rebelliousness and their eagerness to be independent from their manipulative, manic, socially ambitious mother, who keeps a notebook of rich suitors for each one of her daughters.

The third sister, Constanze, is silent and withdrawn and the youngest, Sophie, is pious and an avid reader. The two younger sisters, Constanze and Sophie, want to keep the family bond going for ever and are subdued and attached to their mother and siblings. Mozart will fall in love with Aloysia but fate and circumstances will make him marry Constanze.

Marrying Mozart is a well documented novel, written at an unhurried pace like the era it is set in. The author travelled to Salzburg, Mozart’s birth place, read history books and went through many sources before writing her lyrical, colourful novel.

The story, set in Mannheim, Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, is filled with small details and focuses mainly on the Weber sisters, their life, their brief moments of happiness, their desperation as well as their struggle to survive, after the early death of their provider and beloved father in a combative, hostile world and the male dominated society of the time.

Nonetheless, the most interesting part of the story is their relationship and friendship with the young, musical, passionate and determined Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose path intertwines with theirs and who is battling to have his music recognised by making a name for himself as a serious composer.

Stephanie Cowell’s novel is a delightful, enchanting journey to a different era and place. It is for music lovers in general and Mozart lovers in particular with an added zest of interesting historical facts and insight into mid eighteenth century European life. All spiced with a little romance.