If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Frances Cha’s debut novel If I Had Your Face is fast and swift, like an arrow splitting into several parts. We are immersed in modern Seoul – a mysterious and atmospheric place with underlying brutality and a tendency towards class inequality, typical of many megalopolises. The story is told from the perspective of five young women who are trying to survive in a society of harsh standards and exaggeratedly cruel requirements of their gender.
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that a woman will always be “judged, respected or desired in relation to how she looks”. Through If I Had Your Face’s authenticity, its portrayal of contemporary South Korea once again raises this widespread problem of sexual objectification of the female body. Drawing a parallel with The Little Mermaid, Cha reveals how Korean women get into debt to pay for dangerous and painful plastic surgeries that will help them meet imposed beauty standards – “her new feet will feel as if she is walking on whetted blades, but she will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before ”.
While the female characters of If I Had Your Face are trying to find their place in a world of rigid class segregation with a patriarchal value system, the overwhelming majority of its male figures are cowards or womanizers, enforcing their superiority through money and social status. Sometimes the satirical manner of depicting the lives of different classes resembles a contemporary Vanity Fair, disarming in its universality: “It’s basic human nature, this need to look down on someone to feel better about yourself”.
Due to the large number of protagonists and the length of the book, some storylines seem underdeveloped, and this can leave an empathic reader with an unsatisfied hunger. The novel’s lively, simple style and distressing, topical problems will inevitably make one crave more. By breaching the issues of misogyny in the working environment, motherhood and the perception of marriage according to different generations, the author tells us not only what it’s like to be a woman in modern Korea, but what it’s like to be a woman in the modern world. Despite its heavy themes, If I Had Your Face is a highly entertaining and absorbing read. Its ending brings a bittersweet sense of peace and tranquillity: female friendship and solidarity can become an important solace and a safe harbour in this constant struggle.
If I Had Your Face is published by Penguin Random House at the paperback price of £12.99 and is available in the UK from 23rd April 2020. For further information visit Penguin Random House’s website here.