Divided into four sections and an epilogue, the book allows several family members to weigh in on the shared crisis, often in an intimate second-person narration: “You all blamed each other for Mom’s going missing, and you all felt wounded.” Chi-hon, the elder daughter and now a noted novelist, comes first, followed by elder son Hyong-chol, then the father and, ultimately, the missing Park So-nyo herself. These accumulating voices form a kind of instrumental suite, each segment joined by the same melody of family nostalgia, guilt and apology, and each occasionally plucking away at several larger motifs: country vs. city living, illiteracy vs. education, arranged marriages vs. modern dating, traditions vs. new freedoms.
A melancholic regret reigns over it all: adult children’s guilt over their parents’ aging, parents’ guilt about being burdens to their children, spouses wishing they’d been better spouses. Each of Park So-nyo’s children frets over the memory of what he or she had been doing at the time of her disappearance, and the father rues a 50-year tendency that he thinks guaranteed tragedy: “It didn’t take even a moment to realize that your life had veered off track because of your speedy gait, because of your habit of always walking in front of your wife during all those years of marriage.”
As memories of the missing woman pile atop one another, the facts of Park So-nyo’s story emerge: a woman struggling against poverty, keeping four hungry mouths fed, managing a pesky in-law, suffering infidelity and preserving traditions. But all the adoration and regret tingeing those stories quickly leads to mythologizing: Park So-nyo’s hands “could nurture any life,” her food “brimmed with love,” and she made a daring train ride — her first! — alone and nearly barefoot in bitter winter because her son requested a copy of his diploma for a college application.
The book strives to plumb some deep and essential truth about motherhood, but the realizations that shatter these characters’ apathy may strike readers as somewhat less profound. From Chi-hon’s section: “You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.” From the father’s section: “After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly.” So a woman is more than the chores of motherhood? So you realize what you had only when it’s gone? I have to agree with Chi-hon’s assessment: Why has it taken so long to realize something so obvious? And yet similar revelations continue to mount. As Park So-nyo herself reflects: “Oh, I don’t know where to stop these memories, the memories that are sprouting all over the place like spring greens,” at which point I thought some pruning might have been nice.
Still, despite the simplicity of the underlying message here — Call your mom now! — and the occasional monotony of its delivery — Did you hear me? Call your mom now! — these memories will strike a chord with many readers, perhaps stimulating their own recollections or regrets. Truth be told, I called my mom well before the book’s final page, feeling the need to look after her a little myself.