It occasionally feels like Cha lines up the relentless, contradictory pressures women face in South Korea in order to inflict them one by one. But her writing always crackles: it’s gripping as well as grisly, and flashes of real friendship and solidarity amid Seoul’s neon glare are more touching for being an enormous relief. A compelling, icily cool exposé of the unceasing quest for self-advancement when the economic odds are stacked against you.
There’s not much in the way of plot; rather, each chapter is a snapshot of a woman trapped – by narrow and exacting beauty standards, by debt, misogyny and the rigid hierarchies instructing every level of society. The rich kids in Manhattan place each other by which school they went to, while the “prettiest 10 per cent” of Seoul escorts sneer at red-light district sex workers. As Miho thinks: “For all its millions of people, Korea is the size of a fishbowl and someone is always looking down on someone else.”
When you begin reading If I Had Your Face it isn’t difficult to see why it comes garlanded with praise on high from the literati. The novel is set in modern-day Seoul – a hyperreal dystopia of plastic surgery, call girls and a strict social hierarchy. It is a city where beauty rules and young women regularly undergo surgery to look like their idols.
The novel’s title is literal. Women in Seoul can choose to have their faces sculpted to look like someone else’s. Depending on how you read this novel it could either be a horrifying insight into contemporary Korean society or, and this was how I read it, a gloriously camp celebration of the excesses of a deranged society – Jackie Collins meets Margaret Atwood