A sensation in the author's native South Korea, this charts the life of the eponymous Kim Jiyong from birth to age 33, when she is treated for post-natal depression. In economical prose it tells of a life constantly devalued and undermined by a society that places the value of men far above that of women. As she moves from school and predatory male teachers; to work, where she is overlooked for promotion; to marriage, where she is forced to give up her career for a life of domesticity. Uncompromising and powerful, this shows hidden misogyny in sharp relief.
The novel begins when Jiyoung has started to behave abnormally, as though she is being possessed by the spirits of other women, both alive and dead — her mother, her daughter, a friend who died in childbirth. This is the ultimate erasure of the story. Jiyoung — after a life of being silenced, of being blamed for harassment by men, of giving up everything to become a mother — becomes Everywoman, rather than the individual she once was.
In this fine — and beautifully translated — biography of a fictional Korean woman we encounter the real experiences of many women around the world.
Beginning with Kim Jiyoung’s childhood, where her grandparents always favoured her younger brother over her and her sister, to her secondary school days, where slimy male pupils and teachers groped the girls, to her first job at a marketing agency, where the women are paid less and expected to flirt with clients, she is undermined and undervalued at every turn.
When marriage and motherhood are added to the mix, her already fragile sense falters, tipping her into madness.
The prose is as succinct as a clinical report, but beneath the analytical detachment is a roiling rage that compellingly captures Kim Jiyoung’s frustrations.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has hit headlines in South Korea, and it’s easy to see why. Cho pulls no punches in her delineation of cultural misogyny. While many have celebrated the book’s candour and courage, lines have been drawn (and couples have come to blows). Conservative South Koreans have accused Cho of stereotyping their views, and of perpetuating a “feminist fantasy”. Others argue that this is a relatively flattering account of a toxic society – that the truth, for women, is far more extreme. On social media, the hashtag #KimJiyoung has become a kind of shorthand for an entire social critique: an alignment, or solidarity, with experiences of cultural misogyny, a resistance to the status quo... Cho’s moving, witty and powerful novel forces us to face our reality, in which one woman is seen, pretty much, as interchangeable with any other. There’s a logic to Kim Jiyoung’s shape-shifting: she could be anybody.
What does it mean to narrate a life in a strictly chronological fashion? The linearity of the account feels claustrophobic, with the case-study style objectifying Jiyoung and stripping her of her interiority. Cho’s formal excision of any sense of imaginative possibility is highly effective in creating an airless, unbearably dull world in which Jiyoung’s madness makes complete sense. Her derangement is the only way out of the cramped paradox of gender-based roles.
But the book is an international bestseller because it describes experiences that will be recognisable everywhere. Its slim, unadorned narrative distils a lifetime’s iniquities into a sharp punch. And at its best, the book demonstrates the unfairness of the female experience and the sheer difficulty of improving it. Cho shrewdly presents Jiyoung’s husband, for example, as a good man who is nonetheless complicit in her subjugation, and shows how Jiyoung, a feminist, will compromise on her principles when practicality requires. The problem is that Cho prioritises argument over character, and seems to be more concerned with disseminating facts than devising fiction.