If I Had Your Face paints a complex new picture of Korean womanhood

The lives of four women collide with illuminating effect in Frances Cha's debut novel.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. Image: Ryan McEastern/Penguin

Like many debut authors this year, Frances Cha has had the release of her novel delayed by Covid-19. What’s curious about the timing is how those few months have seen Korea – the country in which If I Had Your Face is set, and where, along with the US, Cha grew up – dominate the headlines. In February, the Oscar-winning success of Parasite made director Bong Joon-ho a household name. A month later, and Korea was being praised for its efficiency in dealing with Covid-19 cases. Cha’s book always offered a tantalising insight into the lives of women living in contemporary Seoul, but at a time of additional Western curiosity about Korea, it feels even more pertinent.

Not that Cha, as she has said in interviews, was wanting to “speak on behalf of a country”. But If I Had Your Face nevertheless takes the Western reader (Cha, who is bi-lingual, lives in New York and wrote the book in English) to little-known pockets of Korea: the room salons, the high-end, male-dominated strip clubs-cum-brothels where business deals get brokered (keeping the glass ceiling firmly in place in the process); the plastic surgery clinics that women rely upon to better their place in society or the stifling office-tel, a kind of multi-purpose apartment block where her characters live.

Cha’s story unfolds through the four first-person narratives of young women dealing with ambition, heritage and societal pressures. Three of them live together: Miho, a talented, orphaned artist in a loveless relationship with a jet-setting heir, Ara, a K-Pop obsessed hairdresser left mute by adolescent trauma and Kyuri, a room salon girl made successful by her expensive, artificial face. Living downstairs is Wonna, a woman whose uxorious husband fails to increase her desire for a baby. Wonna views her neighbours with a combination of envy and fascination. It’s a prism that allows Cha to put these normal women’s lives on pedestals.

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