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.

It’s through them that Cha manages to portray the challenges they face so deftly. All of Cha’s characters are somehow indebted – monetarily, to the surgeons who make them acceptably beautiful and the room salon owners who employ them; historically, to their families and socially, in a world where their womanhood is so constrained. If I Had Your Face is an undeniable critique of how women are treated in Korean society, albeit one deployed with cunning finesse.

Similarly, Western stereotypes of Korean culture – the largesse of affluent neighbourhoods such as Gangnam, a preoccupation with plastic surgery, the deification of pop stars – are presented only to be skewered and examined with gimlet eyes. The result is a more rounded presentation of Korean society than Western pop culture often offers.

Cha’s said that her intentions for the book were to “write something [she] wished [she] had growing up”. I daresay she’s achieved that. But in the process, many readers will benefit from this eye-opening story of Korean womanhood.

If I Had Your Face is released on 23 July

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