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Author:
• 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.

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Author:
• Saturday, November 01st, 2014

Sarah Addison Allen was born in 1971 in Asheville, North Carolina, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from a housewife mother and a father who was an editor, a reporter and an award winning columnist in the local paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. At the age of sixteen Allen wrote her first book: Once From Mood and in 1994 she obtained a B.A. literature Degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Sarah Addison Allen lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she writes her novels. Her first book, Tried And True, was published in 2003 under her nom-de-plume, Katie Gallagher. The breakthrough came with her novel, Garden Spells, in 2007 followed by The Sugar Queen in 2008, The Girl Who Chased The Moon in 2010, The Peach Keeper in 2011 and Lost Lake in 2014. Her latest novel, First Frost will be published in January 2015.

Garden Spells – like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – is a magic realism novel which is a literary genre that tightly binds together unreal elements with realistic fiction.

Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen’s first novel, takes place in Bascom, North Carolina. It’s the story of the two Waverly sisters: the thirty-four-year-old Claire and the twenty-eight-year-old Sydney, who after being separated and scarred by life, reconcile after a long estrangement in order to cast off the Waverly’s bad reputation in Bascom which has lasted for decades and through generations. The two sisters decide to fight the adversity of life side by side and turn their supernatural gift legacy into a blessing instead of an affliction.

There is also their cousin, the seventy-nine-year old, Evanelle, as well as Bay, Sydney’s five-year-old daughter. The four of them, like all Waverly women, are gifted with magical powers and not forgetting the mysteriously prophetic apple tree in the Waverly’s garden, reminiscent of “The Tree Of Knowledge”: “If you eat an apple from that tree, you’ll see what the biggest event in your life will be”.

Claire has a considerable talent for growing plants as well as being a successful businesswoman. She sells and caters to the locals for most unusual food and drinks, like biscuits with lilac jelly, lavender tea cookies, honeysuckle wine, rose geranium wine etc.. All is prepared using her mystical garden plants which have special, bewitching, curative properties. Claire always has a remedy for people’s problems “that could be solved only by the flowers grown around that apple tree in the Waverlys’ backyard”.

Claire and Sydney were children when their mother left home abandoning them and they were consequently brought up by their grandmother who influenced Claire’s magical culinary practice. Claire grows up to be insecure and introverted. At the beginning she is reluctant to open up even to her sister, Sydney, let alone to Tyler Hughes, the newcomer artist living next door. In order to calm the ardour of her loving neighbour and make him forget her, she makes him a casserole with snapdragon oil and tarts with bachelors’ button petals containing magical powers from the plants and flowers in her back garden.

Sydney, the unruly younger sister is gifted with a “premonitory” acute sense of smell. She can smell someone’s presence before their arrival. After completing high school, Sydney leaves home when eighteen years old and returns back ten years later with her five-year-old daughter, Bay, escaping from her brutal husband, David. Despite her young age, Bay, being a Waverly, is skilled as well and she knows where things or somebody belong.

The seventy-nine-year-old, Evanelle Franklin has psychic powers in anticipating events. At any time of day or night, she can feel the urge to give people unusual gifts which appear useless but turn out to be very beneficial at a certain time and at a precise moment.

Bascom itself is a bizarre town where each family, like the Waverley’s, is known for a certain specific peculiarity that goes back generations: the Hopkins young men marry older women and the Clark women marry wealthy husbands and keep them under their spell with their sexual skill.

Garden Spells is an easy, entertaining read, the supernatural associated with horticulture makes the story a diversion from everyday realistic life. Sarah Addison Allen describes her writing style and genre as a “southern-fried magical realism, with a love story” and “fairy tale aspects, all stirred in a pot like a dish”.