I have wanted to read Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, since it was published in 2020. It is a novel which I have seen everywhere since, and it has been, almost without exception, incredibly well received. Helen Oyeyemi, for instance, deems it ‘glittering, engrossing’, and Nell Zink ‘troubling, kaleidoscopic and highly enjoyable’.
If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. It focuses upon four young women, who are ‘struggling to survive’, and are ‘balancing on the knife-edge of survival’ on the fringes of the city. Seoul is a place where ‘plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut… and [where] ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.’ The novel circles around the concept of physical beauty, which can affect your life in South Korea just as much as a premium education does; unless you are lucky enough to attend one of the premium universities in the country, it is almost impossible to work for a top company, or to progress to an executive level. At the heart of If I Had Your Face is the competitiveness which is found at every level of society in Seoul, and the way in which it captures and suffocates people.
Kyuri works at a ‘room salon’, where wealthy businessmen go to be ‘entertained after hours’. Her ‘hard-won status’ at the salon is affected, around the halfway point of the novel, when she makes a mistake with a client, which reverberates through the salon. Miho, Kyuri’s flatmate, is an orphan, given a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York. Here, her life ‘became tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite’, something which follows her when she moves back to Seoul after graduating. Ara, their neighbour, is a hair stylist, obsessed with a K-pop band, and mute following a traumatic incident. Their downstairs neighbour, Wonna, is a little older than these young women; she lives in the same cheap office-tel building with her husband, as they cannot afford much more on their combined salaries, and is expecting a baby after a series of miscarriages.
Kyuri works at a ’10 percent’ room salon, deemed as she is to be in the top 10 percent of the prettiest girls in the industry. She is recognised everywhere she goes for her beauty, although much of this has been augmented, or completely altered, by plastic surgery. Ara describes her as ‘electrically beautiful’, going on to comment: ‘The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line.’ Room salon workers like Kyuri are expected to get their hair and makeup done by professionals every single day.
Cha writes at length about the widespread use of plastic surgery in Seoul; it is given to very young women, and is something which many aspire to have. Ara recalls that, whilst at high school, every girl in their class was offered half-price eyelid surgery by the husband of one of their teachers. Cha reveals just how much emphasis is placed upon beauty by society, and how every woman is expected to conform to such exacting standards; the other skills and talents of women tend to pale in comparison to how they look. The operations which women continually put themselves through are brutal, and unnecessary. Ara’s flatmate, a twenty two-year-old woman named Sujin, wishes to become a room salon girl. During her initial appointment at a plastic surgery clinic, the doctor tells her that as well as double eyelid surgery, she also ‘needs to get both double jaw surgery and square jaw surgery, desperately’, alongside a cheekbone reduction, and liposuction on her chin.
The stark reality of trying to live in Seoul is revealed by Wonna; she reflects: ‘Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.’ Wonna had a difficult childhood with her cruel grandmother, whilst her father worked in South America. ‘It was the greatest irony in the world,’ Wonna remembers, ‘that she had taken in the child of the son who humiliated her the most, she often said to me.’
I liked the way in which all of the women lived in the same apartment block; this is a simple yet effective tool to tie their different stories together. Their rent in the office-tel is ‘dirt cheap’, but only because they live on the fourth floor, a number which promotes superstition in Asian cultures. Cha has made her narrative voices distinctive, and it is easy to differentiate between them. I liked the way in which each of her characters are on different trajectories, working in different industries, and struggling with myriad problems. I really enjoyed the approaches which Cha took throughout If I Had Your Face; she gives an awful lot to think about, whilst providing a cast of compelling and believable characters, and introducing Western readers to the stark realities which exist in Seoul.
I hadn’t read much about the ‘dark side’ of Seoul before picking up If I Had Your Face. The concept of the room salon was new to me; they are largely seedy establishments, from the research which I have done since, which are bound up with prostitution. Ara’s character describes the room salons like so: ‘… now that I know what to look for, I see one on every side street. From the outside, they are nearly invisible. Nondescript signs hang above darkened stairways, leading to underground worlds where men pay to act like bloated kings.’ The Korea which Cha reveals feels a completely different world, and I admit that I found it quite shocking at times.
If I Had Your Face is a rich and accomplished first novel. Cha gives a lot of commentary about different worlds colliding, particularly the rich with the poor, the disparities between different generations, and the grave inconsistencies to be found between Korea and the West. My only criticism is that I feel that the physical city of Seoul could have been made better use of; much of the narrative here is focused upon character rather than place, and a great deal of the action occurs in bland interiors, rather than out in the city. Regardless, I was so interested throughout in each of the characters and their perspectives, and believed entirely in their realistic cares and worries. One really comes to understand each woman here, and Cha gives her readers a great deal to think about. I very much enjoyed this satisfying novel, and look forward to whatever Cha turns her hand to next.