This is not the sort of book I read, and I’d be lying if I said the Korean name on the cover didn’t play a part in getting me to crack the spine; I tend to give passes to stories I think are lame when they come from Asian countries, it’s just where my own cultural preferences lie. Even still the story, about a family dealing with the disappearance of their mother in a Seoul subway station, would normally have been a little too ‘old lady book club’ for me. But one detail of the plot, a minor point highlighted on the jacket description, pulled me in: as the family gathers to make missing person flyers to distribute, the missing mother’s children realize they have no recent photos of her. How heartbreaking is that?
So that little detail got me in the door, since so much of my own [never finished] creative work is concerned with our inability to ever really know another person, and whether that deficiency is really a deficiency at all, or instead an impossible standard we’ve all been convinced to aspire to? PLAM deals with these concerns by the shovelful, as the other family members look back on their relationship with their mother/wife, re-examining shared moments under the colored light cast by her absence.
Shin’s big gamble with the book is her narrative technique, primarily telling the story through second-person voice [when your mother disappeared, you stood outside the station and handed out flyers with your brother and his wife]. It’s a risky move, creative writing teachers usually brandish flaming swords to discourage students from using due to the difficulty in maintaining consistency, but Shin keeps it engaging about 75 per cent of the time.
But 75 per cent is not 100 per cent [I rock math!] and unfortunately the book suffers from its shifting perspectives. Similar to Egan’s ‘Visit From the Goon Squad,’ the problem with the shifting voices is if you like one narrator, you might not ever hear them again. This isn’t as much of a deficiency in PLAM as in ‘Goon Squad,’ only because none of the narrators are that exceptional: I probably preferred the writer daughter to the oldest son, but neither of them are exactly vivd or colorful, a fact I might attribute to the somewhat flat prose of Asian authors when translated to English.
PLAM isn’t a bad book, by any means, but I think it might have more to say about the mother/daughter relationship than the mother/son. Ultimately, it’s a book about the moment when children start to see their parents as individuals, something other than ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ It’s a story worth telling, but I think it would have resonated better with me in a story written by an native English speaker. There were many times, moments related to Korean holidays or family memorial altars, where the significance just whooshed past my head, and despite it’s book club-friendly subject matter, I can see it being a hard sell to those members of my clientele. The prose lacks the florid prose that typically fills such books. And that’s a shame, since I think there’s a lot that crowd could get out of it, but they’re a stubborn bunch in my experience.
All in all, the book’s a fine introduction to a new voice from a place we don’t hear very much from in North America, and the push the book seems to be getting would suggest Kyung-Sook Shin is an author we’ll be hearing from for a few more books yet.