If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021. Cha is a former digital editor for CNN in Seoul. Cha’s novel is told through multiple point-of-views as it follows four women who are navigating contemporary South Korea: Kyuri, Miho, Ara, and Wonna. Kyuri is an exquisitely beautiful ‘room salon’ girl (essentially, a ‘room salon’ is a brothel), Miho is an artist who grew up in an orphanage, Ara is a K-pop obsessed hairstylist who was left mute after a brutal attack, and Wonna is pregnant with a child that she and her husband cannot afford. Cha’s four protagonists are united in their desperate attempts to survive in a society that continually denigrates women, placing them at the bottom of the social ladder.
Cha’s debut is extremely eye-opening, plunging its readers into South Korea and exposing the role beauty plays in Korean society. Cha uses her protagonists to reveal the way in which plastic surgery is considered a norm in South Korea. Whilst we often frown upon plastic surgery in the West, Koreans consider it a necessity. In this way, Cha shows how Korean society is sexist as women get conditioned into believing that beauty is their greatest asset. Kyuri even discusses how common it is to hear about women ending up with ‘staggering, unpayable’ debts after taking out loans for plastic surgery. Additionally, Sujin’s character offers a potent reminder of how highly beauty is valued by Koreans. Sujin risks her life for jaw surgery – the subject of many grizzly news stories, which report women dying ‘from flecks of jaw bone getting lodged in their arteries’.
Although the novel is bold and gripping with its exposé of Korean society, it feels rather too ambitious as Cha attempts to cover far too many social issues within a book that is only 268 pages long. It often feels as though Cha is merely skimming over the surface, barely touching upon topics that have the potential for further exploration. Similarly, many of the characters feel undeveloped for a character-driven novel. Perhaps Cha would have benefitted from focusing on the perspectives of two characters, as opposed to four. Moreover, for an adult book, the writing lacks depth and complexity. It seems as though the writing style is geared more towards a young adult audience.
Despite its loose ends, If I Had Your Face is a gripping and culturally fascinating debut.