“It’s been one week since mom went missing.”
This is how Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin begins, plunging the reader headlong into the plot.
It’s a chilling start, one that no one would want to experience.
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim, Please Look After Mom, tells the harrowing aftermath that the family deals with when their mother, Park So-nyo, goes missing after she was unable to board a train with her husband at Seoul Station.
The story is told through different perspectives: first the elder daughter, Chi-hon; then the eldest child, Hyong Chol, and then her husband and finally the mother (who seems to be flitting between this world and the next).
Each perspective is steeped in regretful reflections and replete with poignant memories about Park So-nyo.
The daughter recalls her mother always working, and in her mind she is synonymous with the kitchen. Only when her younger sister, who herself now has three kids, asks her, “Do you think mom liked being in the kitchen?” does she even weigh in the enormity of her mother’s difficult and sacrificing life.
Hyong Chol, on the other hand, regrets not fulfilling his mother’s dreams and the promises he had made her, particularly of being a prosecutor.
Whereas the husband now regrets taking his wife for granted, not being able to help her even during her illness and how he had automatically assumed that she would be the one to take care of him.
In the mother’s point of view, she seems to be a ghost, visiting her younger daughter, who is struggling with the three kids; visiting her married home in the countryside and even her own mother. Park So-nyo seems to be bidding farewell to every important person in her life and preparing to move on to the afterlife. Interestingly, her perspective does not touch upon the moment when she could not board the subway at the station. While all the other characters rue about that moment, blame themselves or others for what happened, Park So-nyo herself does not deem it important to think about it or give any explanation about it. Perhaps it is her characteristic to simply accept things as they are and not dwell on it or since hers is the last voice we hear, she has already exhausted replaying that moment over and over again in her mind.
Each point of view is intimate and draws on the unique relationship each shared with the mother, making one realise the value of one’s mother in one’s life. Please Look After Mom is the best example for the well used proverb, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” since each character is shown bitterly regretful over their inability to know their mother/wife more when she was with them and to tell her how much she was loved.
The author has used a very rare point of view, the second person, for narrating the daughter and the husband’s perspectives, but when narrating Hyong Chol’s part the conventional third person point of view is used. In the second person narrative used for two characters, it is almost as if the mother is the one speaking to them because when the mother’s perspective begins, she is seen addressing (albeit in her own mind) the people she is visiting and one sees the same form of address even in the second person point of view. And at times it shifts to her own thoughts and her own self. Thus, even when it comes to her own thoughts, the shifting point of view brilliantly captures the burden of selflessness that mothers are expected to carry so much so that their heads are constantly filled with thoughts of those who depend on their care.
Through these moving portrayals, the reader is taken through an emotional roller coaster ride, where one (at least I was!) is forced to introspect about one’s own mother, how much she means in one’s own life and how utterly devastating it would be to lose her without even getting a chance to show her all of one’s love. Once again I was in agreement with a line on the blurb, “You will never think of your mother in the same way after you read this book.”
The story ends with Chi-Hon, almost forcefully, coming to terms with her missing mother through a touching religious humility and prayer where she entreats the Pieta statue to ‘Please, please look after mom.’ The novel is therefore a humble tribute to mothers and their sacrifices and a critique of how society irrevocably chains them to such roles. You will want to reassess your own relations with your mother and even shed tears reading this haunting story.
What stood out for me was also how similar the societal expectations on Korean mothers were to those put on their Indian counterparts. They were also expected to cook, clean, take care of anyone sick without any question or reprieve and kept under strict scrutiny by unscrupulous relatives. They were also expected to believe that their entire world, nay, their entire universe resides in their wonderful children. They are simply not allowed to break free from the never ending kitchen work so much so that So-nyo had to break jar lids just so she could give vent to her frustration and stop momentarily from her ceaseless work of feeding, cleaning and farming. Through Chi-hon and So-nyo’s husbands reminiscences, pertinent questions regarding the role of a mother is thus questioned.
To conclude, even though Please Look After Mom is a tribute to motherhood, it in no way romanticises the idea associated with being a mother, but sharply criticises those very expectations by forcing the characters to be in the most traumatic situation of being bereft of their mother/wife so suddenly, making them take a hard look at their own failings and attitudes towards Park So-nyo.
I think such a novel should definitely be made more popular in India, where similarly mothers are put on unrealistic pedestals, where they are only seen as fulfilling a role, stripping them of any kind of agency or self hood and therefore forcing them to serve one entity or the other be it their own kids, husbands or in-laws.