IF I HAD YOUR FACE is a fascinating exploration of contemporary South Korea told from the alternating points-of-view of four friends, Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Sujin. As they make their way in the hyper-competitive world of Seoul, they face daunting obstacles, including socioeconomic inequality, impossible beauty standards, and a culture in which it’s expected that women will be mistreated by men. Ultimately it’s their friendship that offers hope in a punishing world.
Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Sujin have known each other since childhood, three of them from the orphanage in which they were raised. With little socioeconomic advantage, they rely on their resourcefulness and each other to make ends meet, sharing a small apartment in a Seoul office-tel, a multi-use building with both residential and commercial units.
When the novel opens, Kyuri is working in a room salon, where businessmen come to drink and be entertained by women. Because she works in a “ten percent” salon, which claims to hire the most attractive women in the industry, Kyuri is not required to have sex with her clients. But she’s still under enormous pressure to conform to strict standards of beauty and has already undergone an eyelid and double jaw surgery. She quickly finds herself caught in a cycle of debt in order to pay for the cosmetic procedures that allow her to keep her job.
As she navigates this ruthless world, Kyuri’s voice can be startling.
“It’s really tragic, getting old. I look at our madam and she is just the ugliest creature I have ever seen…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?” (p.13)
This perspective is harsh, but it challenges the reader to face the reality of Kyuri’s circumstances. Underneath her fierce exterior she’s also smart, resourceful, and caring. She sends money home to support her mother and reluctantly agrees to introduce Sujin to her plastic surgeon, even as Kyuri, too smart not to see the trap in which she finds herself, wishes her friend wouldn’t follow the same path.
Ara, who became mute as a child, has worked her way up to become a hair stylist in spite of getting no help from her supervisors or the other stylists at the salon. When her assistant, Cherry, pushes Ara too far, Ara takes matters into her own hands.
“I give her ponytail a final yank and shove her to the floor of the bathroom. Hunching over her, I fish her phone out of her pocket, then throw it into the toilet, the water splattering on her hair…” (p. 87)
With no recourse other than their own ingenuity, Cha’s characters do what’s necessary to survive. The relentless pressure, though, can be crushing. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Ara is on a trip home when she notices the construction of shiny new high-rises lining the highway as she leaves the urban sprawl of Seoul.
“Hundreds, no, thousands of apartments, so far away from the heart of the capital, and yet I will never be able to afford a single one, no matter how much I save all my life. In a way, I will be glad when we are almost home and the scenery will turn into rice fields and farm plots, and I will be reminded of how far I have come, instead of what I cannot reach.” (p. 151)
Miho is the only one of the friends to travel outside South Korea to spend time in the US on an arts scholarship. While there, she becomes involved with an ultra-wealthy group of South Korean ex-pats, including her boyfriend, Hanbin. Her art, though, gives her a perspective that allows her to stay slightly apart from the influences of socioeconomic power and the casual way in which men, in her world, mistreat women. When Hanbin betrays Miho for one of her friends, Miho is hurt, but not surprised.
Even though each of the friends confronts overwhelming obstacles including lack of economic opportunity, sexism, and social pressure, their care towards one another is a redemptive thread that weaves through the story.
“Back at home, Sujin is waiting for me with my favorite green tea cake from the bakery near her work.” (p. 87)
These small but resonant moments of connection provide hope in a cutthroat world. While the pressures Kyuri, Ara, Miho and Sujin face are in some ways unique to South Korea, they’re also as universal as the sustaining bonds of friendship.
I found IF I HAD YOUR FACE to be a fascinating, engaging read, earning it a place on my Books I Love bookshelf!