In 2012, I was accepted for admission to Seoul National University’s College of Humanities. I never ended up going that spring, choosing instead to stay and try my luck at getting into med school in New Zealand. I’ve always wondered how my life may have turned out differently had I gone to Korea for uni. But part of the decision to stay was due to a fear that I wasn’t self-assured enough at eighteen to withstand the social pressures in South Korea. They were pressures that I didn’t totally understand but felt profoundly. Pressures that, I worried, could alter my self in a very significant and perhaps irreversible way.
Frances Cha artfully explores these pressures and the ways they shape the lives of four Korean women in her striking first novel ‘If I Had Your Face’. This novel pulls us into the lives of: Kyuri (a ‘room salon’ girl who has “become beautiful” through plastic surgery); Miho (an orphan who thanks to an art scholarship has been propelled into the social circles of Korea’s elite); Ara (a mute hair stylist who is dangerously infatuated with a K-popstar); and Wonna (a pregnant working woman who struggles with the idea of making raising a child work within a fiercely competitive economy). We get a glimpse of their inner struggles as they try to stay afloat in an environment where turbulent undercurrents seem to be perpetually pulling them under.
One of the first things to slap you in the face is the brutal frankness of these women when it comes to discussing appearance. Kyuri says “I look at our madam and she is just the ugliest creature I have ever seen. I think I would kill myself if I looked that ugly… I mean, why doesn’t she just get surgery? Why? I really don’t understand ugly people. Especially if they have money. Are they stupid?... Are they perverted?” Though it’s easy to recoil and dismiss these opinions as unsophisticated, vapid, throughout the novel you come to realise that this view stems from an innate cultural understanding and acceptance of the value of outward beauty in an attention economy. Particularly for the vulnerable or less privileged, physical beauty is understood to be something that can be leveraged to gain opportunity, power, status, freedom. “Stop running around like a fool… You have so much and you can do anything you want,” Kyuri thinks as she gazes at a “uniquely, startlingly beautiful” singer. “I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face.”
Yet there are limitations to their agency in such a classist, patriarchal, and materialistic world. As each of these women strive to transform themselves - trying to prove to a disinterested world that they are more than guttersnipes and nobodies; trying to find happiness in their own way - they face mounting debt, hostile work environments, sexism… more barriers than you could imagine would affect women in a contemporary OECD country.
It’s an engrossing, feminist, funny, and remarkably observant story that buzzes along, much like the fast-paced lifestyles of working-class Korea. There may be no clear moment of triumph for these complex, flawed women. But in their resolve to support each other as they face their various circumstances, there emerges an astonishing dignity and strength. Which may not get you much in the way of status or power but is nevertheless remarkable to read about in this dark, alluring debut.Support Villainesse