Please Look After Mother is told through four different perspectives: through the daughter, the eldest son, the husband and lastly the Mother/wife. The book is set in South Korea, revolving around a Korean family whose Mother has gone missing in Seoul while travelling with her husband to visit their children. The book also offers an insight into Korean culture and depicts a seemingly universal picture of family life.
The missing woman’s name is Park So-nyo. She is in her sixties and she cannot read or write. She has four children and all she has ever really known is her rural life with her family. From the very beginning the writer plants pressing questions inside our heads: Why did she go missing? How could she have gone missing when she was travelling alongside her husband? Why did she not try contacting her family? Surely she would have at least remembered the names of her children’s addresses – after all, this was not her first time visiting them in Seoul. Ultimately, however, as we delve into each of her family member’s perspectives, the biggest question that pervades throughout the novel is how well do they actually know their Mother? These urgent and gripping questions persist throughout the book, making it a compelling page-turner from the very start.
Where is our Mother? Who is our Mother?
Each chapter is a different family member recalling memories with her that span across decades, constructing timelines that the others are not aware of. As a result, we witness the manifestation of a woman that none of the other characters seem to know fully and as well as we do as readers.
Different family members go through the terrible and extremely emotional experience of losing a loved one. As we turn the page of each chapter, we see the missing woman through a different perspective, shaped by inevitably different and unique experiences with her. We experience what being a Mother means to So-nyo’s children and to her husband, or rather, we become aware of how society has conditioned us to view our Mothers and the women in our life.
Stepping into someone else’s shoes
What struck me most was the use of second-person narrative for most of the novel.
Interestingly, the women’s voices (the perspectives of Chi-hon, the eldest daughter and So-nyo) are written as if they were our own. The novel begins in second-person narrative through Chi-hon’s voice. The fresh pain of losing her Mother becomes very stark and personal. It was natural to tap into one’s empathy and emotions since most of us would know what it is like to have a Mother or a wife, or simply a family member that you care about.
Since the children are now in their late thirties or even in their fifties, this adds an interesting twist to the perspective of someone who has just lost their Mother. At their age, their Mother no longer has to play a significant part in their lives. In fact, they seem to view her as somewhat of a nuisance. A phone call that can be ignored and a nagging voice that merely repeats what they already know. With the loss of their Mother, they begin reflecting on their relationship with her from when they were children to when they were young adults. They realise how much she has impacted their lives and shaped who they are.
We, as readers, observe the hidden sacrifices that she has made for them to all be living comfortably in Seoul, a considerable achievement from a family that was previously quite poor.
The fact that they are literate whereas she is illiterate is a poignant example of the amount of love and sacrifice that their Mother has made for them. This has caused me to reflect on my own relationship with my mother as a young adult. It feels like I’ve been visited by my future self and she has told me that I need to show appreciation to my Mother more.
The role of the Mother in society
Throughout the story the labels of ‘Mother and ‘wife’ begin to break down to reveal a woman that has so often been reduced to such roles to the extent that the people around her do not see her as a person with her own hopes, dreams and fears. This is significant as this reflects the reality of how women are very often reduced to their roles as Mother/wife/daughter in society. Women are expected to take on these roles in order to be valued. As a result, the needs and wants of women are often overlooked by their family and by society.
Both So-nyo’s children and husband have reduced her to her roles as Mother and wife respectively. The children take her hard work, sacrifices and unconditional love for granted and her husband views the chores that she does daily such as doing the cooking, cleaning, working and the raising of their children as something that is expected of her.
A time to reflect
This book was definitely an emotional rollercoaster for me – and I rarely get emotional reading books. Park So-nyo became my surrogate Mother and I desperately wanted to find her.
This is a great book to reflect on our relationships with our loved ones. Are we letting them know that we care and that we appreciate them? It encourages you to appreciate the role of the Mother in our societies. We should check on the women in our lives and show love to them. It is a humble and emotional reminder that everyone has feelings, hopes and dreams, no matter who they are. We should love each other if we can. Go give your Mother a hug today and tell someone you love them!